Transparency: A Risky Business

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Guest Post: Sylvia Burgos Toftness, Communications Lead, Northwest Area Foundation

You may have noticed a flurry of tweets about the Northwest Area Foundation’s recently published report, Gaining Perspective: Lessons Learned from One Foundation’s Exploratory Decade.   

Initial twittering was, in large part, instigated by Sunday coverage in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. While the story was OK, it was the provocative headline – suggesting that we had wasted lots of money – that helped propel the story to cyberspace.   

No surprise. It was one of several scenarios anticipated nearly two years ago when the Foundation decided we would share this story – unvarnished – with the field.  

As proud as I was of the decision, I was a bit anxious. Would readers understand that the report was produced by a highly-experienced outside firm? Could we avoid misinterpretation? This was not a program evaluation after all, but a reflection of organization-level decision-making during a decade of innovation, major risk-taking, progress, and significant short-comings.

Four principles emerged as I drafted our communications plan: be transparent, show respect, avoid surprises, and position the Foundation and grantees for future work.

With these in mind, our top goals were to:

  • Preserve the dignity and valuable contributions of staff and grantees
  • Advance key relationships
  • Show past work as linked to, but distinct from, our current strategic direction
  • Encourage other foundations to share their experiences

Our strategies followed:

  • Use a low-key approach because the report isn’t about ground-breaking news. Instead, it describes challenges any foundation might face when contemplating significant change. I also didn’t want to sound a trumpet when I wasn’t sure exactly how it would be received.
  • President & CEO Kevin Walker would be sole spokesperson. He’s a straight-talker committed to the mission and to the role foundations play within our society.
  • Implement a two-phase roll-out.  

The phased introduction was the anchor to our plan. The first stage was a two-month campaign that ended when we posted report on our website January 10th. During that time, we shared pre-release hard copies with a select group of peer funders, former foundation management and past board chairs, and our larger grantees. Each packet included Walker’s personal invitation for comments. 

Observations from the two dozen who responded prompted us to revise the report’s name to more accurately represent its contents. Several questions led Walker to revise his Foreword to the report and his introduction on the website.

As significantly, all of these thought leaders had the report in their hands for two or three weeks before it was made public. They would not be surprised if, and when, controversial headlines appeared. They could also respond, with some familiarity, if approached by colleagues.

All current grantees were alerted to the report on the release date. They were also invited to a webinar exclusively for them.  

We are now into the second phase of the plan – an on-going effort to make the report easily accessible to any one who might be interested. Again, we’ll represent this work honestly: It is what it is. Will there be bumps? I wouldn’t be surprised.  

Sharing this kind of information isn’t exactly routine in our sector, and I’m guessing we’ll keep learning. But isn’t that what philanthropy is all about – exploring new approaches in our quest for better solutions?

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