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17 posts from March 2017

Apocalypse Later? Philanthropy and Transparency in an Illiberal World

March 02, 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.

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Open-Data-470x352How long will it be before nonprofit transparency takes its place alongside diceros bicornis on the endangered species list? Hopefully never, but in a world that's growing more technologically sophisticated and more illiberal, I'm beginning to think that if it's not Apocalypse Now, maybe it's Apocalypse Later.

The value of transparency

Transparency has been a boon to the philanthropic sector, making it possible for organizations like Foundation Center, Guidestar, the Urban Institute, Charity Navigator, and others to create searchable databases spanning the entire nonprofit and foundation universe. Our efforts, in turn, contribute to responsible oversight, help nonprofits raise funds to pursue their missions, and fuel online platforms that enable donors to make better giving choices. Transparency also enables foundations to collaborate more effectively, leverage their resources more efficiently, and make real progress on critical issues such as black male achievement, access to safe water, and disaster response. The incredibly rich information ecosystem that undergirds the American social sector is the envy of others around the globe — not least because it gives us a clear view of what nonprofit initiative can accomplish, how it compares and contrasts with government, and how social, economic, and environmental issues are being addressed through private-public partnerships.

Where we are today

Federal law — U.S. Code, Title 26, Section 6104 — stipulates that public access to Form 990, a federal information form that tax-exempt organizations are required to file annually, must be provided promptly on request at the exempt organization's office or offices, or within thirty days of a written request. However, exempt organizations don't have to provide copies of their Forms 990 if they make these materials broadly available through the Internet, or if the IRS determines that the organization is being subject to a harassment campaign.

In 2015, Carl Malamud, the Don Quixote of open data, dragged transparency into the digital age when he brought suit against the Internal Revenue Service to force it to make the 990s of a handful of organizations that had been filed electronically available as machine-readable open data. Malamud won, and, somewhat surprisingly, the IRS then did more rather than less to comply with the order: as of June 2016, all Forms 990 filed electronically by 501(c)(3) organizations are available as machine-readable open data through Amazon Web Services. As such, they can be downloaded directly in digital form and processed by computers with minimal human intervention. The development represents a victory not only for Malamud but for the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, which has toiled for years to make 990s more accessible. The idea, of course, is that free, open data on nonprofits will enable more innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to use the data in ways that help make the sector more effective and efficient. Since Malamud won his case, the IRS has posted some 1.7 million Forms 990 as machine-readable open data.

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Philanthropy's Responsibility to Listen

March 01, 2017

Juvenile_justice_2_for_PhilanTopicLast month, the Pittsburgh Foundation released a new report, A Qualitative Study of Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: A 100 Percent Pittsburgh Pilot Project, which calls on human services staffs, law enforcement authorities, and school officials to provide youth involved with the juvenile justice system not just a seat but a bench at the table where prevention and diversion programs are shaped and developed.

We expected the report, which builds on a substantial body of research by giants in the field such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to generate dialogue among our regional human services, philanthropic, and academic partners. But we were surprised that it prompted not only a local newspaper editorial but also requests for republication from an international juvenile justice organization in Brussels and a Boston-based journal that covers the nonprofit sector.

As one local advocate put it, "Who knew that talking to people would be so novel?"

The outside attention reinforces what we learned in our direct engagement with young people: their voices, which carry knowledge and authority from personal experience with the system, have been missing from the body of research on the system.

The focus on amplifying the voices of people directly affected is a core value of our 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle, which we adopted in 2015 to address inequality in our region. Despite significant advances in Pittsburgh's economy, at least one-third of the regional population struggles with poverty. Research, including this 2014 Urban Institute study we commissioned, shows that youth between the ages of 12 and 24 and single women raising children are at the top of the list of groups most at risk. Young people with justice system involvement are particularly vulnerable.

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