Foundation Transparency: FORGE Update

Over the past couple of months I’ve written a fair bit about FORGE, the nonprofit that embraced radical transparency. What I personally found most interesting about the whole saga was that a number of voices emerged resulting in an authentic conversation, not just a transparent admission of mistakes by FORGE. We had consultant Curtis Chang, FORGE executive director Kjerstin Erickson, myself, PR consultant Rich Polt and many, many people who added their voices via comments and/or emails that I posted.

One of the outcomes of all of this was a significant grant by an anonymous foundation that became aware of FORGE via the story playing out on this blog. As a step towards encouraging the “authentic conversation”, the foundation emailed me the following with permission to post it here:

Regarding FORGE: we’ve been lightly following the FORGE story unfold over the past couple of months and initially avoided jumping in (as you know) because FORGE appeared to be a sinking ship.  However, while momentum seemed to be gaining, we decided to take interest.  Deciding to fund FORGE was the result of an accumulation of things which, once put together, made it possible to meet Kjerstin personally and make a commitment the same day.  Here’s a rough list of why we made this commitment:

1. Mission Alignment: obviously there had to be an alignment of interests, and part of our mission has to do with alleviating poverty.  We seek to do so, in part, by funding new models which have promise and address problems in a way that others are not.  While the relief that large aid organizations provide is necessary, I am yet to see an organization bold enough to try and build long term self-reliance for refugees…until now.  A bit early to tell, but we’re willing to help FORGE prove they can do it.

2. The Person: it’s all about finding the people.  Having heard many great things over time about Kjerstin from trusted sources, our initial confidence in her was strong.  Given the nature of her work, and her approach during the past couple of months, she is no doubt a tremendously courageous human being…and quite crazy.  Good crazy.  We like that.  Her decision to go “open kimono” on her blog was gutsy, smart, and demonstrated humble leadership; she went into survival mode and did something that most wouldn’t do.  She’s smart for it and if she succeeds, this will be what saved FORGE. 

3. “Radical” transparency: it is unfortunate that the kind of transparency exhibited by FORGE online is considered “radical”.  This anomaly certainly isn’t just the fault of non-profits – I believe that funders share the responsibility to facilitate a transparent dialogue.  Unfortunately, the aged process of proposals written to posted guidelines, impersonal paper-gathering and justifications to the board does not lend itself to true transparency.  While some of it may be necessary, it has replaced face-to-face dialogue and really what should be a conversation between two equally-vested human beings, or organizations.  In fact, her candid posts to me look more like “public” rather than “radical” transparency.  Our grantees typically offer this kind of information.  When a funder balances the power and becomes a partner, the truth comes out.  When a funder expresses their support for someone’s work and the desire to fund what is needed most, the truth comes out.  Recently we met with a woman who we really believe in and asked her, “what are you having the hardest time raising money for?”  We made a significant two-year commitment to build her development team.  (Pretty sexy, eh?)  In our conversation with Kjerstin at her office, we also wanted to know, beyond the immediate fund-raising emergency, what her priorities were for 2009, which resulted in our additional commitment to fund an admin person to allow FORGE to address the wise recommendations of Curtis Chang and others.  The conversation around the table provided a lot more information than a stack of audited financials.

We always try to keep our philanthropic antennas raised, seeking opportunities, while remaining flexible enough to make decisions when time is of the essence.  This one is a bit of a risk, but we’re optimistic about FORGE’s future.  Most people who get beat up but don’t give up, emerge with muscles and lessons learned.

I have to say how much I admire the thinking of this foundation. I had no contact with them prior to this exchange, but you can tell a lot about their thinking from this email.


  1. I am struck by how closely this process mirrors the best practices of fundraising.

    1. Tell a compelling story
    2. Recruit a supporter
    3. Make that supporter into an evangelist to their network

    Beth Kanter has done this a few times ( as have others.

    Though the transparency part is interesting, I think the bigger lesson is how blogs and other forms of social media reduce friction in the standard fundraising process, but they don’t really change the basic process.

    FORGE got a grant from the foundation because the foundation “knew” tactical philanthropy– even though they just read the blog.

    It all boils down to who you know and social media simply reduces the friction of that process.

  2. That’s true David, but I think the transparency part is critical. Lots of people tell me their story. FORGE told their to the public, I picked up on it and didn’t become an evangelist until it was clear that FORGE was engaging in a dialog with the public, not just telling a story. But you’re right that social media enables all of it by reducing friction.

    A story teller controls the story. FORGE willingly engaged in a non-controlled story that included a number of FORGE critics presenting their issues in public. What FORGE did so well was not just tell a compelling story, but engage in a robust conversation without losing their cool.

  3. David Lynn says:

    I have a question, which I don’t want to sound negative, but hopefully can avoid the copycats: how do we differentiate Kjerstin’s approach from that of cyber-begging? Which in other personal cases online has worked the first couple times, but then loses the novelty.

    There are going to be a lot of non-profits failing in 2009, should they all post saying “Hey, we’re running out of money?” What made FORGE not be cyber-begging but rather transparency, resulting in a positive outcome? Is it just about the people, as the anonymous donor stated, and all of these other machinations are just about networking and making the connection?

    In other words, there are some non-profits that I work with that are suffering. What should I point out from this example that they can apply?


    –David, San Diego SVP

  4. Good question David. Cyber begging is about publicly asking for money. That’s not what Kjerstin did. She went public with a story about how they were in trouble while actively explaining the mistakes they made and why they were correctable. She also then engaged in a rolling, ongoing conversation with people who asked her critical questions. And all along the way, she never lost her cool or got angry at people who criticized her.

    She also went through a public vetting with a professional consultant and allowed him to write about her informally as well as let his final report be posted publicly.

    Remember, FORGE was an example of “radical” transparency. That made it a useful tool for making a point. But what should nonprofits take away regarding transparency?

    I think the key is to realize that being open and honest about your organization, laying out public goals for yourself and sharing the successes and failures in trying to achieve those goals is going to attract dedicated, long term donors who want to build a trusting relationship with you.

    Look I know that most nonprofits are working on a worthy cause, so I don’t need them to spend all their time telling me how important their cause is. I want to know if they are actually doing anything about the cause and if they are a trust worthy, robust organization that I can get behind.

    Cyber-begging won’t build that trust. Transparency will.