Eight years on, The Giving Common initiative to close: What your work has taught us

July 11, 2019

By Amanda Holm Hartigan, Assistant Director, and Leigh Handschuh, Manager, Programs Data and Insight

At the bottom of this blog post and on our Giving Common FAQ page nonprofits will find details about what this change means for their organization’s GivingCommon.org profile along with other important information.

In 2012 the Boston Foundation launched the Giving Common Initiative, a free public online platform that allowed nonprofit organizations across Massachusetts to share their stories, in their own words, with donors, funders, the public and other stakeholders. Over the past eight years, nearly 1,300 nonprofits published profiles on the site, communicating in-depth information about their programmatic activity, staff and board leadership, current organizational needs and their financial history and health.

To our nonprofit partners: We are profoundly grateful for your time and thoughtful approach to sharing your stories, results and needs. Your participation in GivingCommon.org made an incredible impact on the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, locally and beyond. This platform reshaped not only how the Boston Foundation approaches its own grant making, but has informed numerous other funders and donor groups as they shift toward assessing organizations in a more holistic way, rather than solely based on selected financial metrics. GivingCommon.org also altered how we interact with and support grantees and non-grantees alike, moving us forward on the path to responsiveness, openness and transparency—as exemplified by programs that have launched since, such as Open Door Grants.

To the understandable aggravation of many nonprofits, these comprehensive profiles took a long time to fill out and keep updated. Added to that, the Foundation’s promise that GivingCommon.org would fill a noted gap—by creating a centralized hub for the due diligence data that funders and donors ask for over and over—was only partially fulfilled. But more on that later in this post.

Purpose

At the time of the platform’s launch, online information about nonprofits was sparse and inconsistent. Platforms like GuideStar.org relied heavily on information pulled from digitized 990 filings. This limited data was often used by power-wielding institutions to give nonprofits arguably arbitrary ratings or “scores,” perpetuating harmful narratives about nonprofits, like the overhead myth. By developing a resource rather than a scorecard, we strove to provide a strong alternative to the state of online nonprofit databases at the time.

The Giving Common also provided other benefits. By offering a subscription-free credit card donation form on each profile, the Giving Common in 2012 enabled a first foray into the world of online giving for many nonprofits. We often heard from nonprofits that the Giving Common provided an illuminating window into their own operations—and for some an opportunity to see their 990 and audit data in charts and graphs for the first time—sparking meaningful conversations with their Boards about how to proactively communicate their financial position to stakeholders.

Nonprofits indicated that the process of filling out a profile enabled them not only to dictate their distinctive value-add and be transparent about unique circumstances, but also to take ownership of the narrative around documents (990s/audits) that were already public on the web, but often floating out there without any context. What’s more, the Giving Common was one of the only platforms of its kind to enable fiscally sponsored chapters and divisions of larger institutions to highlight their stories and financial data (often only a slice of their parent organization’s financial picture).

Lessons

These learnings prompted the Giving Common to offer a variety of free workshops and webinars over the years, on topics ranging from building a monthly donor program to crafting powerful impact narratives. Time with the Giving Common staff exploring these topics and questions was what set the platform apart from other national web resources. Many times, simply having the Giving Common staff accessible and on hand to help navigate the Boston Foundation’s varied, and sometimes confusing, grant processes and opportunities was most impactful to organizations.

The Giving Common also became an integral piece of the Boston Foundation’s discretionary due diligence and grant-making processes, and a valuable tool for our Philanthropy Group staff, providing a rich resource that improved customer service and provided staff and donor advised fund managers with a comprehensive database of local nonprofits.

Despite these positive results, our original hope of partnering with other funders to fund and improve the platform never materialized. Though we often learned of funders using it in their grant-making processes from the nonprofit applicants themselves, the open nature of the platform made it incredibly difficult to track usage by other funders specifically.

What did emerge, however, was that locally, the Giving Common partnered with approximately 22 donor groups and funders to provide custom due diligence training, with a focus on the holistic view of nonprofit organizations that the GivingCommon.org profiles emphasized. It helped both the Boston Foundation and other funders ask questions like:

  • Are we right-sizing our grant applications for the amount of resources available and time spent applying?
  • Should scaling really be the goal for every nonprofit?
  • Will the size of XYZ grant be appropriate for where this nonprofit is in its lifecycle?
  • How might unrestricted, general operating grant dollars have a more powerful impact on this organization than restrictive project/program support?
  • In what ways can we support this nonprofit beyond the grant dollars?
  • Does the leadership of this nonprofit reflect the community served?
  • Does this nonprofit have a mechanism to receive and act on the feedback it collects from its constituents?

In this way, our partnerships with funders enabled nonprofits to leverage their profiles to raise more grant dollars, while informing the local grant-making field.

Over time though, despite these successes and an annual $200,000 investment from the Boston Foundation for technology and staffing, there was a sense that the Giving Common’s benefits were diminishing.

Reflections

Over the past year, as we reflected and considered the path forward for the Giving Common, we went directly to nonprofits, donors, funders and other stakeholders, using surveys, focus groups and simple coffee chats to get feedback on the platform. While many nonprofits said they find value in communicating their stories through their profiles, we also heard that the Giving Common profiles no longer aligned with those from GuideStar, and were a major time-suck and disruption for nonprofits. The online giving element that was novel in 2012 is readily available from a number of platforms today.

Funders told us they were increasingly looking to national platforms for due diligence or customizing their internal review processes, making out-of-the-box solutions less valuable, and that Giving Common profiles were not reliably up-to-date. Lastly, we learned that the Giving Common did not necessarily support typical individual donor behavior and charitable decision making. In summary, despite its past impact, the Giving Common technology and platform could not keep pace with the changing landscape of nonprofit story and data sharing, donor giving behavior and funder practices.

Commitment

We recognize that the time that participating nonprofits spent working on their Giving Common profiles over the years is what enabled us to develop warm and open connections with them, and deeply engage in capacity building with their staff. Nonprofits, for your hard work in opening your organizations to us, we thank you. Even as the website is closing, those meaningful interactions will be carried forward and expanded further through our emerging work—a recommitment to serving nonprofits beyond grant-making, with an emphasis on sharing lessons, and developing our own learning culture, building upon the relationships we forged through the Giving Common Initiative.

Feedback

Now we’d like to hear from you. Please take a moment to submit your feedback, reactions and questions into the below form. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you and responding to your submissions (if you elect to provide your contact information) over the next few months.

For more practical questions like, “How do I obtain a copy of my profile and donor data?” or “How do I transfer the data from my Giving Common profile to GuideStar?” and much more, please visit our Giving Common FAQ page.