(Rob DiLeonardi is executive director of the Chicago-based VNA Foundation and co-founder and former chair of the Association of Small Foundations, a national organization of grantmaking foundations holding over $60 billion in assets. In addition to his responsibilities as a grantmaker, DiLeonardi has a longstanding interest in foundation transparency and outcome sharing; VNA's Web site and annual reports have received eight Wilmer Shields Rich Awards for Excellence in Communications from the Council on Foundations. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Transparency Talk blog.)
During the two decades I've worked for and with small grantmaking foundations, I've addressed problems ranging from healthcare access to domestic violence to homelessness. One of the most vexing problems I've faced over the years, however, relates not to the subject matter of my grantmaking, but rather to the results of it. Time and again, I've helped develop a grantmaking program to address a particular problem, only to find out after the fact that another foundation was funding the identical issue, often with a remarkably similar approach, in the same or a nearby area. We were addressing the same need, often via the same method, but doing so in blissful isolation. In short, we were reinventing the wheel, sometimes only a few miles apart.
Similarly, our foundation's board and staff have often wondered about latest funding trends. With only a limited number of dollars in our coffers, we want to spend them in the most effective possible way. It would be helpful for us to know exactly where other philanthropic dollars were being directed, both geographically and programmatically, as this knowledge would aid us in filling a gap or funding a complimentary niche -- a favorite strategy to maximize the impact of our grantmaking.
For these reasons, over the years I've tried many different approaches to ensure that the staff of the VNA Foundation is aware of other funders' work and that they are aware of ours. We subscribe to many electronic and hard-copy newsletters, periodicals, and reports. We attend local, regional, and national conferences and networking groups. We convene grantmakers and grantees around common challenges, and encourage dialogues about successes -- and failures -- in addressing them. And we work hard to make our Web site an interactive, timely, and appealing resource. Yet, despite these various efforts, both the grantmaking data we share and that which we receive is often either stale (months or sometimes even years old by the time it reaches end users) or lacking the key details to make it useful.
My interest, therefore, was quickly piqued when I learned of the Foundation Center-supported Reporting Commitment, and the opportunity for the VNA Foundation to become a participant in it. The Reporting Commitment finally allows foundations the opportunity, and the mechanism, to release grant information in a consistent, open, and frequent manner. Although the commitment's founding participants were large foundations, as soon as I became aware of the initiative I knew there would be value in participation by foundations of VNA's size. Small to medium-sized foundations are far more common in number, size, and grantmaking level than their larger brethren. In fact, small foundations account for approximately half of America's total foundation grant dollars, and often provide the kind of essential local support that impacts lives on a daily basis.
In addition, most observers judge foundations by their effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency, not their asset size. Participation by smaller foundations like VNA (foundation philanthropy being one of the few settings in which a $50 million bank account is considered "small") is key, in my opinion, to making the Reporting Commitment's impact felt in more than a handful of sectors.
I am delighted to say that the VNA board of directors immediately saw the value in our participation in the Reporting Commitment, and my colleagues at peer foundations are seeing the light as well. All across the country, every day, foundations large and small are working to bring about small miracles or serve as catalysts for systemic innovation. With the help of the Reporting Commitment, perhaps our field finally has a mechanism by which that work can effectively be shared with colleagues and the public alike.
-- Rob DiLeonardi