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Assuming that we recognize that our effectiveness depends on the success of our partners, it should not be lost on foundation trustees and staff that this way of operating is self-defeating. Philanthropy’s penchant for remaining at arm’s length makes everyone’s work harder than it should be and reduces the possibility for accountability—a necessary and already lacking component of impactful family philanthropy.
Thankfully, we continue to learn. The pandemic and the country’s reckoning with racial injustice both served as catalysts for change. Funders everywhere realized it wasn’t difficult to trim philanthropic bureaucracy to move money faster without sacrificing effectiveness.
The Dobbs Foundation took another step toward transparency and accessibility in 2022 by piloting monthly “Open Information Sessions” via Zoom for anyone interested in learning about the Foundation, people who work here, grantmaking priorities, and our process for engagement. Our Open Information Sessions are akin to “office hours” in higher education.
When getting ready to launch, we used our networks to get the word out among nonprofits and partners. On the Foundation’s “Contact” page of our website, we posted a notice about these sessions at the top of the page.
After putting the word out, we received a very strong response. In fact, when facing the prospect of holding our first session with more than 25 in a Zoom room, we decided to limit participation. We wanted to balance responsiveness and efficiency while retaining potential for personal engagement among each month’s group.
We settled on a ceiling of ten participants per session and we do this by asking people to register. In addition to helping us manage monthly enrollment, the registration list enables us to communicate prior to the session (e.g., sending confirmation, the Zoom link and a reminder as the day approaches). After working through the initial wave of demand, we now tend to have people scheduled about two months out.
The agenda for monthly sessions is straightforward but we have tweaked our approach with experience. We start with introductions among Dobbs staff and our participants. We then provide a brief introduction to the Foundation’s history and board. Referring to our website via shared screen, we talk through an overview of our three focus areas. This serves to interpret language used on the website and underscores the intended value of the website as an ongoing resource. We always reference a searchable grant history on the website while making the point that reviewing a list of grants approved is the best way to understand how our board translates guidelines into action. Finally comes a primer on our inquiry and application process.
We encourage questions along the way but always leave time for Q and A. We make it clear that nothing’s off limits for discussion. In spite of the power dynamics in play, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the candor of participants. For example, we often find a group talking about fundraising practices and the unique challenges of building support from foundations.
Read the full article about transparency in philanthropy by David Weitnauer and Rachel Sprecher at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.