Transparency Case Study: Bush Foundation
Editor’s Note: NCFP’s new guide, Transparency in Family Philanthropy: 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. This month we share the experiences and lessons learned from the Bush Foundation.
Over the past five years, the Bush Foundation in Minnesota has worked actively against what it calls a fortress mentality in philanthropy.
“There’s a famous (in philanthropy) quote that defines foundations as a ‘large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some,’” says Jen Ford Reedy, president of the Bush Foundation. “There’s truth to this statement, and this can lead foundations to have a fortress mentality—building moats and barricades in the form of needle-eye guidelines or brick-wall websites. The stronger our defenses, however, the more difficult it is to be exposed to enough ideas and engage with enough people to be truly effective.”
Reedy and others at the foundation are committed to a “no-moat philanthropy” approach, and believe their efforts have made them smarter and more effective.
In the spirit of transparency, one of these “no-moat” principles is “share as you go.”
“In the past five years, we’ve been working to get more of what we are thinking—and learning—out to the community. This has required adjusting our standards and prioritizing just getting something out, even if it is not glossy and beautiful,” says Ford Reedy. “It has required a new, shared understanding with grantees and Fellows that their reports and reflections will be public, so as many people as possible can benefit from their experience. It has required designing our internal work—like strategy documents for the Board—with external audiences in mind so they are ready to share.”
First among its many efforts to “share as they go,” the Bush Foundation posts grant recipient reports on its website. “We introduced Learning Logs to make grant reports public, and, we hope, to give them life and utility beyond our ways. Grantees and Fellows share that they read one another’s reports as a way to get new ideas for overcoming barriers,” says Ford Reedy.
Second, the foundation shares its own lessons along the way by publishing learning papers. “We intended this to lower the bar of who, when, and how we share,” says Ford Reedy. “Our learning papers are not beautiful. They simply document a staff effort to process something we are working on and share our reflections.”
Third, the foundation also now ties its evaluations to outside audiences. “We invest heavily in external evaluations of our work, but in doing so, we have found that the end-product is often only useful to our staff and key stakeholders,” says Ford Reedy. They now think about evaluation with a sharing mindset. “We use a framework to identify the audiences who might care about or benefit from the lessons of an evaluation, what questions are relevant to each group, and what form or output would be most useful to them.”
Finally, the foundation believes in “webinars to the max.” According to Ford Reedy, “We host a webinar at the beginning of every application period for grant and fellowship programs to explain the process and what we are looking for. We also host them when we have a job opening to discuss the role and what it is like to work here. And we host them annually for our foundation initiatives to explain what we are up to and where we are headed.”
A webinar, she says, typically features a staff presentation followed by an open Q&A with videos archived on our website for anyone who missed it. “Webinars are not a particularly novel activity; however, we view them as core tool of permeability,” she says.
Greater transparency does come with a price tag, and according to Ford Reedy, “spending time and money on these activities means time and money not invested in something else. Everything we do is a tradeoff.”
For example, it takes operating expenses and staff time for the foundation to reformat grant reports to be shared online, and to conduct other “no-moat philanthropy” activities—such as holding office hours at various sites in the community, or operating hotlines for grantseekers and community members to call in.
“There is a lot of opportunity to advance our mission in the ‘how’ of grantmaking, and we weigh that as an investment alongside others. In our case, we did not have an increase in staff costs or operating expenses as we made this shift. We just reprioritized,” she says.
“We believe that if we do it right, we can have as much and potentially more impact from sharing the stories and spreading the lessons from our grantees and Fellows as from the investments themselves,” she says. “When we’re intentional about having impact through how we do our work—building relationships, inspiring action, spreading optimism—then we increase the positive impact we have in the region.”