Rethinking Transparency – It’s Not a Dirty Word

It is time for Australian philanthropy​ to move past its negative associations with the word transparency, writes Krystian Seibert, Policy & Research Manager with Philanthropy Australia.

At Philanthropy Australia’s 2014 National Conference last week, one of the most favourably received presentations was that of Brad Smith, President of the Foundation Center.

The Foundation Center is an US organisation whose mission involves advancing knowledge about philanthropy in the US and around the world.

Much of its work focuses on consolidating and analysing data, and it maintains a very comprehensive database on US and, increasingly, global grantmakers and their granting activity.

One of its key initiatives is ‘Glasspockets’ – which champions philanthropic transparency, and provides the data and resources which foundations need to understand the value of transparency, be more open in their own communications, and help shed more light on how private wealth is serving the public good.

Having met with Brad prior to his presentation, we knew in general terms what he would be speaking about. What we didn’t know was how the audience would respond. Would they be captivated by his message about the benefits of an open philanthropic sector which proactively shares information about what it does? Or would they be concerned by his challenge to some of the norms under which philanthropy has traditionally operated in Australia.

Brad’s message was that transparency is a good thing and should be facilitated and encouraged. But often the philanthropic sector doesn’t respond that well to the word ‘transparency’ – you could say that it’s a bit of a dirty word. To be honest, since I started with Philanthropy Australia, I have been a bit hesitant to use the word for fear of being misunderstood.

One reason for this is that for too long we have let transparency be defined for us, by others.

Transparency has been viewed through the paradigm of regulation and compliance, and associated with unwanted intrusion on the privacy of donors. Applying this paradigm, transparency is viewed as necessary because it may improve ‘integrity’, prevent wrong doing and therefore maintain public confidence. It has a very negative connotation.

But this is only one paradigm through which to view transparency, and it’s not the paradigm we should be focusing on. Put bluntly – it’s time to take back transparency.

One key message which I took out from Brad’s presentation was that improving transparency in Australian philanthropy is an opportunity and not a threat.

In my view, there are three particularly important benefits from improving transparency.

Firstly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to plan and coordinate giving – it stands in the way of the effective allocation of limited philanthropic resources, so they tackle the issues and areas of real need.

Imagine if there was detailed information available that mapped granting across different cause areas and locations, over time? This would be a valuable tool which philanthropic organisations could use to inform their granting strategy.

Better information will enable a more strategic approach to philanthropy, helping ensure that there is less duplication and more coordination and collaboration between philanthropic organisations.

This will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Secondly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to understand, measure and improve performance. Whilst not yet widespread, philanthropic organisations can and do undertake evaluations of the programs and initiatives they support, with a view to seeing how things have worked or haven’t worked, and to learn from experiences.

In another presentation at our National Conference, Dr Diana Leat focused on some recent research undertaken with colleagues at the Queensland University of Technology, commenting that many of the evaluations which are done are just sitting in foundation offices around Australia – they aren’t disseminated and so nobody else is getting the opportunity to learn from them. This made me think of Brad referring to US foundations as ‘islands of information’ in his presentation the day before – a very good analogy.

Imagine if we built bridges between these islands of information? This would involve making evaluations more accessible, with philanthropic organisations sharing their evaluations more widely so that others can learn from their experiences, both good and bad. That kind of knowledge exchange could help philanthropic organisations build on the work of others. Again, this will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Thirdly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy means that we aren’t sharing stories of philanthropy that show how private wealth is serving the public good as much as we could be. Therefore, the broader public but also government and media don’t fully understand the transformative work philanthropy does every day in our communities.

It’s not simply a question of ensuring appropriate recognition for philanthropy. Rather, if we want to increase giving in Australia, we need to ensure there is broader awareness about why giving is important and how it can and does lead to positive change.

Imagine if you could visit a website, and zoom in on a map showing the grants made in your local area? That would be an amazing way of demonstrating the impact of philanthropy.

When I look at the benefits from improving transparency, I think that it’s an opportunity that’s not to be missed. It’s not about regulation and compliance. It’s not about losing privacy for donors – some donors will understandably want to be discreet about their giving, and should be allowed to do so.

Rather it’s about Australian philanthropy making a decision to be more open about sharing data and information, to learn from one another and achieve better collective outcomes, and to develop the systems and frameworks to facilitate and enable this voluntary knowledge exchange.

It’s certainly an area Philanthropy Australia is actively exploring – because it’s critical to growing philanthropy’s impact across our communities. Watch this space.

This opinion piece originally appeared on Pro Bono Australia, Thursday 11 September 2014.

Sep. 15, 2014

 Tags: research & information, general, events

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