February 29, 2016
From the President

Opening a Window on Canadian Philanthropy – Part 2

By Hilary Pearson

In my last blog, I asked the question: Do we have open reporting and sharing of knowledge among Canadian foundations? My answer was no. But this is not because Canadian foundations are inherently reluctant to talk to each other or to their grantees and the broader community. The answer may have more to do with the lack of developed platforms and practices for sharing information and communicating about goals, outcomes and learnings from foundation work. It may also have to do with the reticence of funders who have relatively little capacity to evaluate and disseminate, although they are willing to share some information to promote dialogue with grantees and potential grantees.

An interesting new report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Boston, Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency suggests that foundation leaders in the US are indeed prioritizing current and potential grantees in their efforts to share information. Many of these foundations, large and small alike, agree that it is important to the grantee and applicant audience that foundations provide information about their grantmaking processes, including their objectives, criteria, application procedures and what to expect in terms of decision timelines.

This type of information is often posted on foundation websites, which are the main source of information available to the public (other than government reports which in Canada are found on the Canada Revenue Agency Charities and Giving website, and in the subscription directories such as GrantConnect and Fundtracker). Among the 130 members of PFC, about 60% have websites, indicating an increase over the last few years in the willingness of foundations to share information about themselves and to facilitate the process of approaching them.

However, few of these Canadian foundation websites include detailed lists of grantees and specific grant amounts given. No more than one-third of the PFC member websites offer detailed grants information, including names of grantees, projects funded and amounts given. This is in spite of the fact that all foundations must provide this information (names of recipients and amounts) yearly to the CRA, which in turn makes it publicly available. Even fewer PFC members offer searcheable grants databases on their sites. The J.W.McConnell Family Foundation and the George Cedric Metcalf Foundation are two that do offer such databases. The Ontario Trillium Foundation last year went a step further in providing machine-readable grants data.

However, since few Canadian foundations publish their own grants data except in an activity or annual report which may be posted as a PDF document, it is difficult for foundations to find out who else is funding their grantees, or where there may be synergies and opportunities for co-funding of grantee work. PFC has created a member- accessible platform, MemberHub, to help PFC members in searching for information about each other. But this is not yet the kind of field-wide platform that will truly enable foundations and their grantees to be as open and transparent to each other as they could be.

CEP’s report does point out an area in which there is virtually no transparency, either in the United States or in Canada. This is the area of shared learning. Do we know what foundations have learned about what works, and what doesn’t work? Do we know anything about how foundations might evaluate their own work? Not from their websites, in most cases. But there are models. Some Canadian foundations have created and shared stories in the form of case studies, or evaluation reports. For example, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has published an extensive set of evaluation reports. The George Cedric Metcalf Foundation shares stories about “events, initiatives, challenges, and accomplishments related to our work and the work of our partners”. The Counselling Foundation of Canada shares its learnings about its work in the form of an annual “activity report.” And a number of other foundations are beginning to create and share annual reports and publications that go beyond simply listing their grants to sharing their reflections more widely.

In its report, the CEP concludes that sharing information about what has and has not worked remains a missed opportunity for many foundations, perhaps because they “can’t share information they don’t have”. They don’t have evaluation functions, or allocate few resources to disseminating what they have learned. This is probably true in Canada too. But on the whole I have grounds for optimism. I see more websites, more information arriving on these websites, and an increasing willingness to be transparent to grantees and potential grantees, which could easily extend to collaborators and partners in the funder community.

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