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More Truth-Telling and Candor

Can we make more room for honesty in philanthropy?

In this guest blog for the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Linda Wood connects the Fund’s leadership work to the larger conversation about transparency in philanthropy.

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“Talk about sharing sensitive material! Wow.” This was just one of a number of similar comments the Haas, Jr. Fund received from nonprofit and foundation colleagues reacting to the level of truth-telling and candor shown in short video clips we recently posted of executive directors talking about coaching.

In these videos, successful, highly regarded nonprofit executive directors describe the issues that they are working on with their Haas, Jr.-funded coach. We hear from a long-time executive director and public official pushing through fear to take on work that would be new and risky. From another about the difficulty of taking a different leadership stance when she moved from the #2 position to the #1 executive director role for the first time. From still another about how to assess whether she would continue to be the right leader for the organization’s next phase.

Hardly unique challenges for nonprofit leaders. But what seems to have struck a chord is their willingness to “tell it like it is”: to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses and to describe the value and impact of reaching out for support.

What would it take for truth telling and candor to catch on in philanthropy, so that comments like these don’t feel like such a breath of fresh air? Much has been written in recent years about the need for greater honesty, transparency and even partnership between funders and grantees.

A year ago, the Skoll Foundation introduced the notion of “radical transparency,” based on the experience of Forge, an international organization (led by executive director, Kjerstin Erickson) that used the Skoll community as a sounding board for deep organizational issues. Most folks in philanthropy understand well the steep risks of investing in start-up nonprofits. Yet the philanthropy blogosphere – and even the Wall Street Journal – was rightly abuzz when this social entrepreneur went “open kimono,” to quote the blogs, and took a candid and humble approach to reaching out for advice and financial help. And, it worked; they raised money.

We can also thank the Center for Effective Philanthropy who got the ball rolling in the direction of truth-telling when it started the anonymous Grantee Perception Report that gives foundations, often for the first time, the unvarnished truth about how helpful – or not – they are to their grantees’ efforts. And, it worked; foundations have begun to change their practices as a result.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has also called for funders to look at how they get in the way of their own grantees’ effectiveness. GEO’s leader, Kathleen Enright, has urged us to build the trusting grantee relationships that allow for candor, and to experiment with ways to see the world through the eyes of those we intend to serve.

We have been struck by the importance of making sure that what matters to us as funders does not crowd out dialogue about what matters most to our grantees.

At the Haas, Jr. Fund, our leadership investments have been a rich source of learning about what leaders need to be successful. With dedicated resources, our grantees are able to tap what’s tried-and-true about strategy, boards, fundraising, executive leadership, and teams; but they are also given resources to experiment with out-of-the-box ways of working and leading. We have been struck by the importance of making sure that what matters to us as funders does not crowd out dialogue about what matters most to our grantees. How can we create the conditions to simply ask, what do you need? Not your staff. Not your board. And, for the moment, not even your end beneficiaries. What do you as a leader need to do your best work?

As the anonymous foundation that stepped forward to provide funding for Forge put it, “When a funder balances power and becomes a partner, the truth comes out. When a funder expresses their support for someone’s work and the desire to fund what is needed most, the truth comes out.”

Read the original blog post here.

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