Transparency Case Study: Tracy Family Foundation

Editor’s Note: What choices do family foundations and funds have when it comes to transparency? And what approaches do other families take when it comes to managing transparency, communications, and privacy? NCFP’s guide, Transparency in Family Philanthropy: Opening to the Possibilities examines how family funders are thinking, acting—and, in some cases, not acting—when it comes to how open and accessible they are with others. Opening to the Possibilities features a collection of five diverse funder stories exploring different takes on how families think about and act on transparency—and what they have learned as a result. Here we share the experiences and lessons learned from the Tracy Family Foundation.

The Tracy Foundation thinks of transparency in two ways—being open within the family, and being accessible to the wider community. Although they may not use the word transparency in board discussions, trustees do address the topic when it comes to trustee and family engagement. This is perhaps because the Tracy Family is a large family, with blood and family members adding to 24 in the second generation, 62 in the third generation, and 24 in the fourth generation.

According to president Jean Buckley, daughter of the founders R.T. and Dorothy Tracy, “From a grantmaking perspective, we’ve always been transparent in our process—communicating clearly on our website how to apply and when we make funding decisions. Yet, from a governance perspective, we realized we weren’t as up front as we could be.”

For example, for years the foundation has had a document outlining board member responsibilities and expectations. Yet there was nothing about board selection. “Next generation family members asked us: how do we really select board members? What does the process look like? We decided to document that process in writing, and make it available to the extended family.”

The foundation now refers to this board document when bringing on new members, and shares it with second and third generation family members so that everyone is clear on the process and what is expected. “Because there are so many in the next generations, we’re trying to expose them to the governance of the foundation, so they can get a better grasp on what’s involved.”

This outreach to family members is important for the future, says Buckley. The foundation recently set up a private Instagram account for family members “to engage and inform them on the many projects of the foundation.” Additionally, the foundation has a “members only” part of its website that lists information about its third generation grants, policies and guidelines, photos and more.

Right now, the foundation is planning for the next 20 years, she says, and that is calling on the board to be more transparent. “We’re asking each other tough questions that require us to be open and honest with each other, as board and family members. Questions such as: Do we want the foundation to be a key family connector for the next many years? How will we handle our estate planning? Do we wish to do our personal philanthropy together? It’s led to interesting conversations, and will continue to be essential in thinking about the future,” she says.

What’s Working

On the community side, the Tracy Foundation encourages grant applicants to consult with the foundation program manager to strengthen their applications and increase their chances of getting funded. “We see so many applications that come in and need a lot of work. This gives applicants some tips on making it better, and it helps our program manager get to know the organization and prepare to communicate to the board. About 72 percent of all our applicants take advantage of the opportunity to have this conversation,” says Buckley.

She acknowledges that a foundation can’t have that level of communication with applicants without a dedicated staff. It takes time to dedicate those resources. Yet, at the end of the day, she says, it saves time. “I used to spend my time reading through countless applications, sending emails and follow up emails. And more than half the time, it would postpone funding,” she says.

“Now that applicants have these pre-conversations with our program officer, the applications are clearer, and our discussions now are so much more efficient at board meetings. It’s improved our process and saved everyone time.”

The Tracy Family Foundation’s annual report includes data on both “internal” and “external” indicators of success. One internal indicator is the use of matching and next gen grants by family members, shown above.

Lessons Learned

“Some funders post a ton of information on their website, and this helps other funders. You can learn a lot about the work of colleague foundations when they have guidelines and grants listed on their sites. It saves time for everyone—no one has to guess,” she says. “Funders can miss out on opportunities and connections and learning. We all learn so much from each other. If you are open about what you do and get together with others, more learning takes place,” says Buckley.

Buckley does acknowledge that there are challenges to transparency, particularly in small towns. “We live in a rural area, and no one wants to feel like they are bragging about giving away money,” she says. “Privacy can also be an issue. The more ‘out there’ the foundation is, people always want something from you, and there’s a good chance you’ll get stopped in the grocery store,” she laughs.

For now, they’ll keep the focus on the family when it comes to social media. “Several years ago, we discussed whether to use social media in a more public way, and decided, for us, it doesn’t warrant the human power to maintain it.” The foundation does inform the community through press releases on new initiatives and collaborations. “We’ve never been one to take the credit for grants, however we do see great value in highlighting the work of our grantee partners in the counties we serve.”