We’ve written often throughout the years about the benefits of funder transparency: stronger relationships with grantees, new collaborations, efficient processes, public trust. In our continuing series with colleagues at the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG), we take another look at funder transparency. What are your reactions? Does transparency warrant a close and careful look?
Fashions in philanthropy can be every bit as startling as the catwalk: evaluation methods and grantmaking approaches change as fast as hemlines. But one fashion that is probably here to stay (a bit like men’s suits) is transparency, which makes it worth taking a longer look at.
Transparency for funders is a helpful idea, but it’s not a panacea. If private foundations and grantmakers think it is, then their attempts to bring a measure of sunlight to a sector shrouded in mist are likely to fail or, much worse, do damage. We need to recognize that glass-pocket principles need to be more nuanced than they have been so far and that there are circumstances in which transparency can be a really bad idea. This is not saying funders should not share data – they should, as there are significant benefits – but we need to think harder about what we share publicly.
This won’t be an entirely welcome message. But it comes from someone who has put in time as a data warrior, persuading foundations to contribute details of their grantmaking to the part private, part public Advancing Human Rights: Knowledge Tools for Funders project created by the Foundation Center, the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG), Ariadne and the International Network of Women’s Funds (INWF). The project has now processed nearly 75,000 grants and the publicly available analysis is transformative. And the project will become more powerful over time as we track trends.
The private part of the project drills down much further and shows which grantmaker made what grant to which organization for what purpose and at what date. It makes a host of previously expensive and time-consuming activities cheap and simple. This is available only to Ariadne, IHRFG and INWF participants, because this is the level at which transparency becomes more difficult.
Effectively the Knowledge Tools project and others like it allow us as grantmakers to take off our blindfolds and pin the tail on the donkey with some clarity. The trouble is that we aren’t the only ones interested in where the tail goes. When we publish detailed data we hand information to the media, governments, corporations, bloggers and those passionately opposed to our ideals. At a time when the space for civil society is closing and cross-border funding is becoming contested, this is potentially dangerous – especially, but not only, in the fields of human rights and social change.