The Lasting Value of Transparency

Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to share a year-long series of blog posts from leadership at The Russell Family Foundation (TRFF)  describing the deep and ongoing work they are engaged in together to better understand the levels and meaning of transparency in their work. Our thanks to the Fund for Shared Insights for supporting NCFP’s work in the area of transparency and family philanthropy. 

Throughout 2017, we had the opportunity to share our experiences in “operationalizing” transparency in a series of blog posts and events hosted by NCFP. It was a wonderful occasion to kick-start some dialogue; and, just as we hoped, we found ourselves having heartfelt discussions with peers about the motivations and intentions for “harnessing transparency.”

Colleagues would often use words like clarity, authenticity and mutual respect to describe the actual outcomes of more transparent conduct. So do we. Yet, there is one more advantage that we would like to add to the list.

In our view, it’s not just what you can learn in the moment that makes transparency valuable. Rather, it’s what you come to know, over time, about yourself and others. When it’s part of the organization’s communications culture, transparency helps organizations know, and therefore appreciate better, where their members stand on key topics. It helps leaders determine how and when to engage with grantees and associates so there can be an honest exchange of information that leads to a shared “community perspective.” It affords insight as to why key decisions get made so that everyone can respect the rationale, even if they disagree with the direction.

It’s not just what you can learn in the moment that makes transparency valuable. Rather, it’s what you come to know, over time, about yourself and others. 

These are some of the ways that transparency contributes to “knowing,” which helps us advance The Russell Family Foundation’s mission with confidence and credibility. Most everyone is familiar with the phrase that knowledge is power; but we have found that “knowing” is even more empowering.

Learning By Doing

Of course, realizing the benefits of transparency is not as simple as it looks. Putting transparency into practice is a “learn-as-you-go” proposition, and it is not the same in every situation. In the beginning, it may feel counter-intuitive to volunteer information, especially for a private foundation. Sharing demonstrates commitment, but that can be scary too.

And there can be risks. Excessive or imposed transparency in real time can hinder a foundation’s ability to experiment with innovative programs that others may view as controversial or risky. Likewise, too much transparency can make it difficult to maintain confidentiality where necessary. (See The Opacity of Private Philanthropy, by Dr. Robert Reid, for a further exploration of this perspective)

However, as time passes, it becomes easier to determine the right amount of transparency across different scenarios. Having tools and practices in place to guide your efforts can be a big help.

In 2016, The Russell Family Foundation identified the need for additional frameworks to help guide us through important issues such as leadership succession and grant strategy. Out of that effort emerged our three-dimensional chessboard, a tool to stimulate and clarify important conversations about issues that might otherwise be difficult to surface. The chessboard helps us visualize and understand the complex layers of communications and expectations associated with foundation life.

There is nothing magical about the chessboard. It is simply part of the discovery process that helps us decide when and with whom to be transparent. We invite you to use this model (or some variant) within your own organizations.

Embracing Transparency

Reflecting back on what our foundation has learned about transparency, the pros far outweigh the cons. We have found that transparency fosters better working relationships and group dynamics – both internally (among staff, board and family) and externally (between foundations and multiple stakeholders).

Transparency enhances our ability to learn, to lead, to reach consensus, and even agree to disagree. That’s because adopting a mindset of transparency encourages deeper participation and helps us stay focused on our mission. As a result, we tend to be more successful and satisfied working together because we know more about what’s going on.

Based on these experiences, we readily agreed to join the NCFP Transparency Task Force – a team of family foundation trustees, executive staff, and thought leaders from the field – who are developing a “transparency assessment” tool that will help foundations self-calibrate their practices and commitment to transparency. We see it as a positive step in helping peers operationalize transparency on their own terms.

NCFP expects a prototype of the web-based tool will be ready for beta testing in March and then, following refinement, rolled out broadly in the summer of 2018. Jason Born, NCFP’s Vice President for Programs, is spearheading this effort; he can elaborate on the tool’s scope and structure if you have questions.

We hope you will consider committing your organizations to more visible communications, too. By pushing the boundaries of disclosure, you can expand the size and effectiveness of your networks. You can also ensure that your foundation remains vital from one generation to the next by facilitating clear and open communications. In order to reap these rewards, however, transparency must be a sustained effort – much like an operational value, enabling the best kinds of teamwork possible to thrive within the field of philanthropy.