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Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Transparency, So Far 

December 18, 2013 — By Eric Brown

Last month, Larry Kramer kicked off the Hewlett Foundation’s new blog by explaining that the blog is one element of the Foundation’s evolving approach to transparency and openness. Larry explained that we will try to share as much information as we can about what we do and why we do it. Sometimes we just share items of interest. (By the way, if you’re not following Ruth Levine’s Friday Notes, you should. They’re really interesting and fun.)

It’s not enough to make information merely available, though. We are also going to try to make that information easy to find and easy to use. We are going to talk more about it in the future, but we are just getting started on a project that we think will help deliver on our commitment to transparency. We’re conducting research into the kind of information about the Foundation that people are most interested in and we’re going to figure out how to make that information easy to find and easy to use. We are already discovering that it’s harder than it looks. People have wildly different interests and different ways of seeking out information. We will spend the next several months conducting research on this question, and we will have much more to say about it as the project develops.

There are a few things we are doing right away. For example, we are beginning to make more information about our grants available on the website. We are now publishing the summaries of grants that we provide to our Board so that grantees, grant seekers, other funders, and interested observers have a better sense of the purpose of the grants. We began by publishing new Global Development and Population Program grants from our most recent Board meeting (those listed as awarded on November 10, 2013 in our Grants Database), but we will expand to the rest of the programs after our next Board meeting in March. We’d be very interested in knowing how people use this information, if in fact they do.

For the last several years, when we published our annual report, we included the annual memos that programs submit to our Board. This was a pretty good example of potentially useful information that we made public, but I have to confess that we didn’t do a good enough job of publicizing this information. You can read these memos in our most recent annual report. In them, each program reports on the past year and gives the Board a sense of what to expect in the coming year. It’s a way of holding ourselves accountable to our Board and to our own strategies. If you are interested in learning about a program’s strategy, this ought to be pretty useful information. Is it? Let us know.

We are by no means the only foundation to make this kind of information available, by the way. As we were refining our approach to transparency, we learned a great deal from a number of foundations that we think do a great job of sharing information. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Gates Foundation are just two examples. Are there exemplars of openness that you can cite? Please share them. We need as many models as we can find.

As I said, we are by no means pioneers, but my guess is that our announcement has stirred some interest in this topic. In fact, in the time since Larry’s blog post, I’ve gotten a number of messages from colleagues at other foundations who explained that they are now reexamining their own approach to transparency and openness. I imagine that those are not always easy internal conversations. I would be very interested in learning (to the extent you feel comfortable) how those conversations are going. What do you think the value of increased transparency might be? What might the drawbacks be? If you don’t feel comfortable sharing in the comments field, send me an email (you know where to find me) and I’ll summarize the responses.

As you can tell, like the title of this blog, our work on transparency is very much a work in progress. We are learning as we go, but it feels like we have made a decent start (if the spirited comments to the blog are any indication). Nevertheless, we also know that we have a lot of work ahead of us. Onward!