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In Pursuit of Better Outcomes Through Transparency-Fueled Adaptability

March 13, 2015

AdaptabilityIf you're a small foundation aiming to achieve greater philanthropic impact, how can transparency be a tool? At the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, we're using it to drive impact through better project management and improved grantee relationships: transparency for adaptability rather than accountability.

Open access to biodiversity information to benefit nature and society is our mission. The principle that data access enables change applies to philanthropy as well as conservation and aligns well with our foundation strategy and culture. And transparency underlies a number of our practices, including customized progress and financial reports, detailed report reviews, amended grant agreements and plans, and regularly updated project Web pages.

From the first steps in the grant application process through the final grant report, we try to model and achieve openness and accessibility. An important moment for new grantee relationships is an orientation video-conference that introduces our approach to managing the funded project. We use the call and future communications to promote the continued refinement of thoughtful qualitative and quantitative indicators that can lighten a grantee's reporting burden and allow us to collaboratively identify areas where plans need to change. Then, during the project, we regularly remind project directors that the plan made months or years earlier to win our funds was merely the starting point; they need to execute on the plan to meet their stated goals today, and that requires flexibility on their part – and ours. When a grantee is transparent about something that has gone wrong, we'll help them revise their budget and plan to do what makes sense based on the changed circumstance. Rose-colored reporting and rigid grant agreements don't serve anybody well, while candor in the grantee-funder relationship keeps small challenges from becoming big problems. We also try to keep a promise to our partners to match our attention to milestones and metrics with our enthusiasm to adapt to emergent challenges and opportunities.

To help generate a fruitful dialogue with grantees, we adjust reporting formats to their needs in the belief that such an approach creates greater creativity, transparency, and trust. Grantees are invited to translate approved grant budgets into their own organizational accounting codes instead of being told to shoehorn numbers into our template. Forward-looking questions about the next six months carry as much weight as the backward look at the most recent six months – and are equally informative. Recently, we adopted a grantee's suggestion that, to save time and money, they insert any update right into the relevant section of their last report. In that way, over time, each report becomes a running log of learning, adaptation, and progress.

Of course, the first rule to making this all work is: Read your grantees' reports. Follow-up questions are an opportunity to show that we care about both the project and the people touched by it. With many partners, it takes a report or two to prove that we're willing to let them re-allocate funds, refine objectives and activities to changed circumstances, and adjust the timeline as needed. Administrators and fundraisers often must be reassured that we are flexible in our guidelines but steadfast in our overall commitment. Of the twenty-five grants totaling $3.6 million we awarded in 2012, all but three have been amended or extended. Our grantees tell us that our detailed questions, feedback, and flexibility are a blast of fresh air and motivate them to really pay attention to project management.

Another component of our approach is to offer a full page of Web real estate to every project we fund. Those pages feature essential project information as well as goals, updates with respect to key outputs and outcomes, and comments from the staff here at JRS. It can be a tricky balance to describe projects in a way that advances the work while promoting transparency. But the early indications are promising; we're at the top of search engine results for funding in our niche, and for many JRS grantees the first search hit and the most direct path to their work is through our website. We know other donors are visiting our project pages.

In our open calls for proposals in 2012 and 2014, we only funded 5 percent of the applicants who approached us. That means a lot of well-intentioned, hard-working people saw their efforts go for naught and walked away from us disappointed. With that in mind, the next frontier of transparency for JRS will be to sharpen our communications around our funding priorities and decision-making process with the aim of boosting our approval rates to 25 percent to 33 percent.

Headshot_don_doeringEmbracing a adaptive, transparent approach requires a ton of effort and doesn't always go smoothly. But for JRS it has become an organizational value in a relatively short period of time, and it has improved project performance noticeably. It's also the least we can do for our grantees and stakeholders.

Don S. Doering is executive director of the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, a private foundation in Seattle that supports open access to biodiversity data and knowledge. This post originally appeared on Glasspocket's Transparency Talk blog.

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