Transparency and Engagement

Transparency and Engagement is one of the six Stronger Foundations working groups. Its principal purpose is to examine, discuss and debate challenging questions about foundation practice related to its theme. On this page you can find snapshots of each meeting to date, including content, reading materials and outputs. The group's work will contribute significantly to the raw material gathered through the initiative as a whole, from which ACF will create a variety of products, including a 'rapporteur's report' summarising the breadth of discussions and evidence gathered.
The group is comprised of senior foundation representatives drawn from across ACF's membership, who will meet 7 times over an 18 month period. The meetings, which will vary in format depending on the topic and desired content, will include presentation of evidence (by experts from within and beyond the foundation sector), small group discussions, whole group exercises and visits. The group's full terms of reference can be found here.
The members of the group are: Paul Ramsbottom, Wolfson Foundation (group chair); Nick Acland, The Henry Smith Charity (ACF trustee); David Hynes, Norwich Charitable Trust; Bridget McGing, Pears Foundationp; Joseph Howes, Buttle UK; Clare Beavan, DWF Foundation; Andrew Wright, Arcadia Fund (Lund Trust); Ciorsdan Brown, Goldsmiths' Company; Anna de Pulford, Dulverton Trust; Nicola Wilson, trustee of St Giles & William Shelton Educational Charity; Matt Young, GrantScape; Lucy Bardner, Harpur Trust; Esther Hughes, Global Dialogue


Meeting Snapshots

Meeting #1 (December 2018) - introduction meeting
The group held its first meeting, exploring the many ways in which transparency and engagement can be interpreted in a foundation context. There has been a signifgicant increase in the ways in which foundations have sought to become more transparent in recent years. These have included grant-maker initiated and foundation-funded efforts, such as open-source data sharing on grant decisions (e.g. 360 Giving).

The group also considered the impact of mandated transparency (e.g. through changes to charity accounts) and the potential for increased public pressure and scrutiny (for foundations and the charity sector generally). Peer-led change within the US not-for-profit sector, such as the Glass Pockets and Grant Advisor initiatives, are likely to be case studies for future meetings. 
Members of the group expressed a diverse range of interests in the issue of transparency, and described how they represent organisations that at various points in their journeys towards implementation. There was agreement of the importance of the issue, and the need to consider carefully both the significant potential benefits of transparency and external engagement in efforts to be transparent, and also the potential risks, barriers and occassions when a lack of transparency might be justifiable. The role of boards of foundations was thought to be key to all aspects of transparency, and the group also intends to consider the ways that its work directly relates to that of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion working group. 
Following this meeting, ACF will work with the group's chair, Paul Ramsbottom (CEO of the Wolfson Foundation), to develop a work programme for the group, and engage with potential external contributors, including grantees, academic and practitioner experts and critical friends. 

Meeting #2 (February 2019) - Why should foundations be transparent?

At this second meeting, we heard from Janet Camarena, Director of the Glass Pockets initiative in the US, a programme at Foundation Centre. Glass Pockets provides a self-assessment tool for foundations that provides 26 indicators of transparent practice, and provides an evidence base in support of transparency.

Janet described the progress made to date in supporting foundations to demonstrate their commitment to and implementation of transparency in practice, from grant-making decisions to grantee feedback, to recruitment of trustees to investment strategies. While nearly 100 foundations in the US (and some other jurisdictions) have signed up to date, this is a small proportion of the sector and there is a long way to go. For example, in the US, still only 10% of foundations have a website.

The initiative has its origins in the 1950s, during the period of McCarthyism, when foundation leaders found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being brought in for questioning as part of McCarthy-era inquisitions, with one foundation leader noting that: "'The foundation should have glass pockets,” so that anyone could easily look inside foundations and understand their value to society, thereby inspiring confidence rather than suspicion" (see more here about the history). 

The full schedule of transparency indicators used in the assessment tool is here. The group considered these in terms of their own foundations' practice, and found that many of the indicators were already a requirement of charity law and reporting (e.g. annual accounts, mission statement), but others were some way beyond where they or the foundation sector is as a whole (e.g. independent impact assessment of foundation performance, social media presence, diversity statements).

In conclusion, Janet proposed that there is far more risk to a foundation in opacity rather than transparency, both in terms of public scrutiny/trust and performance. She also acknowledged that there will be valid reasons for some foundations to be private about certain grant decisions, such as sensitive human rights projects, but that this should be an anomaly rather than an overall approach. In the UK, initiatives such as 360 Giving are gaining momentum, and the potential arrival of Grant Advisor may accelerate the UK foundation sector's move towards greater openness and engagement. These are issues that the group will consider further in future meetings. 

Blog: A logic for openness, written by Paul Ramsbottom, chair of the working group

Video: Janet Camarena presents to the working group on the Glass Pockets initiative
Meeting #3 (April 2019) – is momentum towards transparency increasing or has it stalled?
Rachel Rank, chief executive of 360Giving, was the guest speaker at the working group’s third meeting. Rachel gave a brief overview of how 360Giving works with grant-makers to publish their data in an open and accessible format, and highlighted the importance and usefulness of foundations doing so. With many in the group already familiar with what 360Giving is – and is not; a transparency campaign – Rachel discussed some of the challenges they and funders face. These included a lack of time or resources and uncertainty about the impact of opening up grants data.
Rachel posed a series of questions to the group which formed the basis of a lively discussion. They included:
  1. Who are you being transparent for and why?
  2. Do you know what information people would find useful about you?
  3. Why wouldn’t you make some information available?
  4. Do you have a duty to be open about where your money comes from as well as what you’re funding?
  5. Could you be more open about what you think rather than just what you do?

For the second half of the session, the group divided into two teams to debate the motion: has momentum towards transparency increased or stalled?

Those arguing that it had increased looked at foundation transparency in the context of a wider cultural shift towards transparency, including heightened expectations from grantees, the regulators, and the public, as well as developments in technology and regulation that encourage and facilitate transparency. 

Those arguing that it had stalled considered: the conspicuous absence of investments in debates on transparency; philanthropists opting for less transparent alternatives to establishing foundations; and the relatively limited number of foundations engaging in transparency initiatives and conversations. By the end, several members of each team commented that they had been convinced by the other side!


Meeting #4 (June 2019) - Using transparency to drive change

The Transparency and Engagement working group met for the fourth time to discuss ‘using transparency to drive change’. The speaker for this meeting was Pamela Dow from Catch22, and previously of the Ministry of Justice. Pamela shared her experience of using transparency to drive changes in public policy, and about Catch22’s approach to transparency in its work. Pamela shared lessons learn from the US, where a state education department had adopted a strategy underpinned by transparency in order to drive improvements in schools. Pamela reflected on how this approach could be applied in any sector, including foundations: ‘transparency changes practices and incentivises people to do more and better’. 

Pamela’s observation that ‘no system was ever made worse by shining a light on it’ struck a chord with the group was and this set the scene for subsequent discussions. The group reflected on their relationships with applicants and grantees and how greater transparency in a number of areas may change that.

The group considered some hypothetical scenarios in which greater transparency on the part of foundations might be required in the future. The groups reflected on four scenarios covering:

  • Publishing their approach to addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Providing fair and honest feedback to applicants.
  • Being open about their decision-making processes and giving communities a greater say in how and where they spend their funds.
  • Applicants carrying our due diligence on donors.

In relation to the scenarios, comments from group members covered the importance of having DEI issues on the agenda as a minimum, emphasising the value of foundation independence, and the need for culture change to embed progress and transparency.



Further reading

Below you will find a suggested reading list, which the working group identified and considered as part of its deliberations. If you would like to send suggestions to us, please do by emailing


We support UK foundations and grant-making charities