Please Tap the Glass(pockets)

posted on: May 6, 2010


Several years ago, I took up aquaria as a hobby. I had a great time building habitats. I raised some great fish.Eventually, my wife and I moved up the food chain and bought cats. While we had the fish, though, I enjoyed showing them off to guests.I’d tell the stories behind the fish, and visitors unfailingly did the thing you’re not supposed to do:tap the glass.

Glasspockets, an incredible resource from the FoundationCenter, reminds me of the day I graduated from a fishbowl to an aquarium.What’s been put together is incredible, and, sure enough, we get to see all sorts of things we just never saw before all in one place:governance policies, HR policies, grantmaking information, financial information, and foundation Twitter feeds.All that’s left is to show it off to some guests who will do the thing you’re not supposed to do in philanthropy: tap the glass.I know I want to. Is there anyone else who does?

Transparency this radical takes an important step toward the accountability many have been looking for from foundations.

Mind you, I don’t want to disturb the fish too much; I appreciate the nod to the diversity of foundations.Such transparency rubs against the privacy that some donors pursue out of humility or an honest desire to avoid the spotlight.But can we lay to rest the “one-size-fits-all” critique?There already is a one-size-fits-all approach to foundation transparency.It’s called the Form 990-PF.By law, every private foundation, no matter its size or purpose, fills it out and must make it publicly available upon request.Besides, even an opaque pocket has at least one hole in it:how else does the wallet come out?

The important question for me, though, isn’t the meta-ethical debate of whether or not we can expect the same things of all foundations, but, rather: what do we expect of foundations?What are a foundation’s obligations to the donor, its directors, its grantees and to the public?The answers may be somewhat different for each foundation, but we seem to prefer debating the questions we can and can’t ask to actually asking the questions and seeking answers.

Hopefully, Glasspockets will serve to provoke some of those questions.One of the benefits of the FoundationCenter’s subscription services is the level of customization, a user’s ability to sort through the information you might not want to find the information that you do.Consumer choices and subscriber requests have informed the content of the Foundation Directory Online and Foundation In/Sight, and they’re better tools for being two-way streets.

Glasspockets is still very much a one-way broadcast.The site aggregates the information that foundations make about themselves, which is groundbreaking and helpful.But what about the information the public needs, regardless of whether or not foundations care to share it?What about the information made available about them by others? Thankfully, since Glasspockets puts foundation information out there for anyone to use, the one-way broadcast won’t be one-way for very long.

This is all for the better because the issue isn’t just whether or not you can see the fish.Some people are content to watch the same fish swim the same strokes all day, but there’s an ocean of problems out there. Being seen certainly helps convince some foundations to do better, but transparency is only the first step in a longer journey toward accountability.Do we think Gates’ investment policies would be publicly available on Glasspockets if not for media scrutiny?Maybe, maybe not, but scrutiny—tapping the glass and demanding answers—helps move our field forward.

Is responsiveness solely about responding to requests for information from grantees, the public, and Congress?Or do foundations owe the public more than a pleasant appearance and a good story?There’s a difference between transparency and accountability—between seeing what a foundation shares (or doesn’t) and hearing how a foundation answers for what it does (or doesn’t do).

I encourage you to tap the glass.Glasspockets is a terrific tool, but pockets with holes in them have their charms as well and are just as transparent.

Kevin Laskowski is field associate with the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.


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