Eva Dienel, Associate Director, Communications, BSR

As part of our ongoing series of conversations with leaders in sustainability, we asked BSR Conference 2014 plenary speaker and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker how his organization incorporates transparency and transformation into its work.

How do you promote transparency at the Ford Foundation?

Within the Ford Foundation, and through philanthropy as a whole, we’re trying to encourage more constructive criticism, more open communication, and more seamless collaboration.

If we’re being honest, not every grant we make is going to turn out perfectly. But more often than not, foundations don’t talk about their relative failures as readily as they do their successes, particularly in a culture that has become so hidebound by what I call the tyranny of strategy. Quite frankly, we’re reluctant to share information.

As we see it, transparency is of the essence—and in this regard, we’re matching our words with action.

The fact is, we need to be learning from our failures and learning from one another—in real time, all the time. This means making ourselves more open to constructive criticism, from within and without.

To kindle conversation, we’re using social media to build public engagement around what’s happening in our building, and what our grantees have been able to achieve. But we’re not just opening our lines of communication. We’re also building bridges for collaboration. As a foundation, we’re moving to a creative-common license, so that we are able to share with our peers some of the things that work and the lessons we’ve learned, because that kind of transparency makes us all better.

What do you think has been the most significant example of transformation in the field of business in the past year?

Surveying the landscape of business today, I think the most important transformation underway is in how corporations understand their full ecosystem of obligations—and their responsibility to truly earn their right to operate.

For decades, businesses have focused almost exclusively on maximizing shareholder value. This was the measure by which they judged success and failure. Today, however, many firms are thinking about how to optimize other kinds and categories of value, as well—whether in improving stewardship of natural resources, protecting human dignity, or advancing social justice.

One of the intrinsic challenges in this new business paradigm—to this broader conception of value—is that while one can easily check a stock price, it’s much more difficult to quickly (let alone correctly) take measure of how a company is performing across multiple bottom lines. This means we need new bodies to set standards. And we need universal acceptance of these standards.

What makes me optimistic is that we now have at our disposal the technology, and the data, to measure various aspects of a company in addition to its basic financial performance.  Moreover, savvy business leaders are becoming much more adept at deploying this information to help investors, partners, suppliers, managers, and consumers to make better choices.

Just as one example, my Ford Foundation colleagues and I are excited to be working with the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board as well as the Committee on Sustainability Assessment to develop rigorous new tools and ways of measuring longer-term impact.

In this way, we can help bring the full force of data and analytics to bear in our collective pursuit of more just, sustainable business standards and practices.

Join us at the BSR Conference 2014 to hear Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and others discuss transparency and transformation in business and sustainability.