Because What You Know Shouldn't Just Be About Who You Know
July 11, 2017
The following post is part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center's work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.
"Knowledge is obsolete." As a librarian, my ears perked up when someone shared the title of this TEDxFoggyBottom talk. It's plausible. Why memorize obscure, hard-to-remember facts when anything you could possibly want to know can be looked up, on the go, via a smartphone? As a mom, I imagine my kids sitting down to prepare for rich, thought-provoking classroom discussions instead of laboring over endless multiple-choice tests. What an exciting time to be alive — a time when all of humanity's knowledge is at our fingertips, leading experts are just a swipe away, the answer always literally close at hand, and we've been released from the drudgery of memorization and graduated to a life of active, informed debate! And how lucky are we to be working in philanthropy and able to leverage all this knowledge for good, right?
Though the active debate part may sound familiar, sadly, for too many of us working in philanthropy, the knowledge utopia described above is more sci-fi mirage than a TED Talk snapshot of present-day reality. As Foundation Center's Glasspockets team revealed in its "Foundation Transparency Challenge" infographic last November, only 10 percent of foundations today have a website, and not even our smartphones are smart enough to connect you to the 90 percent of those that don't.
The Foundation Transparency Challenge reveals other areas of potential improvement for institutional philanthropy, including a number of transparency practices not widely embraced by the majority of funders. Indeed, the data we've collected demonstrates that philanthropy is weakest when it comes to creating communities of shared learning, with fewer than half the foundations with a Glasspockets profile using their websites to share what they are learning, only 22 percent sharing how they assess their own performance, and only 12 percent revealing details about their strategic plan.
Foundation Center data also tells us that foundations annually make an average of $5.4 billion in grants for knowledge-production activities such as evaluations, white papers, and case studies. Yet only a small fraction of foundations actively share the knowledge assets that result from those grants — and far fewer share them under an open license or through an open repository. For a field that is focused on investing in ideas — and not shy about asking grantees to report on the progress of these ideas — there is much potential here to open up our knowledge to peers and practitioners who, like so many of us, are looking for new ideas and new approaches to urgent, persistent problems.
As for having a universe of experts a swipe away to help inform our philanthropic strategies, the reality is that the body of knowledge related to philanthropic work is scattered across the thousands of institutional foundation websites that do exist. But who has time for the Sisyphean task of filtering through it all?
No coincidence, perhaps, that a main finding of a recent report commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation was that foundation professionals looking to gain and share knowledge tend to prefer to confer with trusted foundation peers and colleagues. At the same time, the field is doing a lot of soul searching related to diversity, equity, and inclusion — and what it can do to improve its performance in those areas. But if practitioners in the field are only sourcing knowledge from their peers, doesn't that suggest their knowledge networks may be unintentionally insular and lacking in well…diversity of opinion and perspective? And might there be a way to connect the dots and improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and inclusivity of our networks by changing the way we source, find, and share lessons learned?
In other words, shouldn't what we know not just be about who we know?
The good news is that as more foundations professionalize their staffs and develop in-house expertise in learning, monitoring, and evaluation (as well as in grants management and communications), there are a number of developing practices out there worth highlighting. And there's more good news: a number of technology platforms and tools have emerged that make it easy for us to improve the way we search for and find answers to complex questions. Here at Foundation Center, for example, we are using this post to kick off a new #OpenForGood series featuring the voices of "knowledge sharing champions" from the philanthropic and social sectors. Some of these experts will be sharing their perspectives on opening up knowledge at their own foundations, while others will clue us in to tools and platforms that can improve the way philanthropy leverages the knowledge it generates (and pays for), as well as the way it discovers new sources of knowledge.
But before we get there, you might be wondering: What does it mean to be a social sector organization that is #OpenForGood? And how does my organization become one? Not to worry. The following suggestions are intended to help organizations demonstrate they are moving in the direction of greater openness:
- Grantmakers can start by assessing their own foundation’s openness by taking and sharing the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency self-assessment survey.
- Funders and nonprofits alike can openly share what they are learning with the rest of the field. If your organization invested in monitoring and evaluating results in 2015 or 2016, make the effort to share those evaluations in our new IssueLab: Results In exchange for sharing your recent evaluations, you will receive an #OpenforGood badge to display on your website to signal your commitment to creating a community of shared learning.
- If you have lessons to share but not a formal evaluation process, share them in blog format here on PhilanTopic, or on GrantCraft, so others can still benefit from your experience.
- Adopt an open licensing policy so that others can more easily build on your work.
The #OpenForGood series is timed to align with the launch of a new Foundation Center platform designed to help philanthropy learn from all the collective knowledge at its disposal. Developed by the team at IssueLab, whose collection already includes more than 22,000 reports from thousands of nonprofits and foundations, IssueLab Results is dedicated in particular to the collection and sharing of evaluations.
IssueLab Results supplies easy, open access to the lessons foundations are learning about what is and isn't working. The site includes a growing curated collection of evaluations and a special collection containing guidance on the practice of evaluation. And it’s easy to share your knowledge through the site — just look for the orange "Upload" button.
The basic idea here is to scale social sector knowledge so that everyone benefits and the field, collectively, grows smarter rather than more fragmented. On a very practical level, it means that a researcher need only visit one website rather than thousands to learn what is known about the issue s/he is researching. But the only way the idea can scale is if foundations and nonprofits help us grow the collection by adding their knowledge here. If they do — if you do — it also means that philanthropy will have a more inclusive and systematic way to source intelligence beyond the "phone a friend" approach.
The bottom line is that in philanthropy today, knowledge isn't obsolete, it's obscured. Won't you join us in helping make it #OpenForGood?
If you have a case study related to knowledge sharing and management and/or the benefits of transparency and openness, let us know in the comments below, or find us on Twitter @glasspockets.
Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center. A version of this post originally appeared in the Glasspockets' Transparency Talk blog as part of its new #OpenforGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. For more posts in the FC Insight series (not to be confused with the Fund for Shared Insight), click here.