Foundation Transparency: Opacity — It’s Complicated

Calls for greater transparency from social institutions are gaining momentum in American culture, especially given concerns about the potential risks to society from misconduct hidden from public view. Such concerns have escalated since the 2008 global financial crisis, where consequences of misconduct had broad impact. While social institutions had little role in bringing about that crisis, broadly applied transparency is increasingly represented as society’s best defense against unethical behavior. Accordingly, advocates for increased transparency are acquiring a growing voice in the field of private philanthropy.

The research on which this article is based was intentionally agnostic about whether foundations are private or quasi-public entities — or even if they should operate with more transparency. The findings here reach beyond philosophical convictions to instead provide a more practical examination of transparent/ opaque practice and related issues. Accordingly, this research contributes to a more complete understanding of both practices in private philanthropy. A list of questions is provided to help foundations assess their practices within the context of philanthropic objectives.