Published by Kerry on 21 Jan 2011 at 11:25 am
Some nonprofit organizations may worry that being too open makes them vulnerable to criticism or attack. A certain degree of openness is required by law as a tax-exempt organization providing a public service. But being more transparent with stakeholders can also bring some real benefits for those brave enough to make the change.
What is openness?
Openness is a broad concept. It implies being truthful and honest in what you say, communicating information freely to stakeholders, and being held accountable to those you serve. It touches on much more than just your communication strategy, extending to how you run your programs and what sort of governance mechanisms you have. So for example, on WiserEarth, openness is at the core of how we encourage accountable online behavior. With just about every edit made visible and attributed to an individual, the principle also guides how site-wide editors are recruited and elected, and is reflected in how we share our future plans.
Benefits of Openness
- Greater Efficiency: Without a basic level of openness about program activities and goals, effort tends to be duplicated and resources wasted by the nonprofit community. One could argue that this is the minimum level of openness that a fellow activist or nonprofit professional should expect simply as a matter of common courtesy. We have written before about the need for transparency as a basic building block for collaboration.
- Increased Trust: This may seem like a contradiction, but the more you share your failures with your successes, the more your stakeholders will understand the difficulties facing you as a nonprofit and cut you some slack when a really difficult issue comes up. If they have seen you solve smaller problems they will have more confidence in you solving bigger ones. Plus, with the internet-assisted rumor mill, you can bet that everyone in your sector will know what is going on with you anyway, and is probably saying things are worse than they really are.
- Improved Fundraising: The better that funders understand your organization, the more likely they are to figure out new ways to support you (e.g. introducing you to other funders, experts, key information resources), provide more flexible or potentially unrestricted funding, and even increase your funding. The trade-off is that you may lose some of your less sophisticated individual donors.
Case Studies in Openness
Openness about nonprofit needs, processes and funds can often be greatly beneficial to the success of an organization. It raises the public’s trust, invites collaborators, and generally enhances the organization’s reputation.
- WiserEarth has relied on transparency as a core value in its close to four years of life as a community-driven, staff-supported platform. We have an open group to discuss upcoming features in technical development that any member may join, a group for active members to take a larger role in moderating and enhancing the site, and even a group about our developing sponsorship model. We believe that the more open we can be about our activities, the better feedback and collaboration we receive. Over the years, unpaid community members have invested heavily in WiserEarth: reporting live on Copenhagen’s climate conferences, writing articles for the community newsletter, translating the site into foreign languages, and more.
- Charity:Water – They took a big risk last September and filmed a well being drilled, live, on their fourth anniversary. And in front of the cameras, the well failed. They were heartbroken, the Bayaka people were heartbroken, and it wasn’t at all what they had wanted to showcase. However, their transparency was appreciated. Scott Harrison, founder and president, noted, “…this video seems to have resonated more than any of the happy endings we’ve broadcast in the past. And [that day] we saw our best traffic day ever in the history of charity:water.”
- Idealist.org – At the beginning of last year, Idealist.org hit a wall in their finances. Instead of going down without reaching out to the community, founder Ami Dar sent out a transparent appeal to members explaining what had happened and what needed to happen to keep Idealist alive, namely funds needed to increase dramatically. The response from the community, bolstered by an updating funds thermometer on the homepage, brought Idealist out of the woods, helped them launch a new version of the site, and things are looking optimistic for their continuance.
- RARE – Over the last 10 years, RARE has made an increased investment in gathering performance data about their work in conservation, and openly documenting and sharing their results. Some of these results can be seen here in their success stories. While the effort required some investment of money, this transparency has resulted in the organization being seen as a leader in its field and resulted in increased offers of partnership and funding.
Tips for moving towards openness
In the hectic world of the nonprofit, full transparency can sometimes seem a chore. But as we’ve discussed above, the payoff for you, your mission and your community can be huge. Here are some quick tips and checks for openness:
- Make sure your finances are complete on your organization’s 990 listing in Guidestar.
- Do you have a section on your website or blog to discuss honest needs within your organization?
- Do you tremble at the thought of revealing any of your failures/challenges with your community? It might be time to start.
- Set some guidelines for discussion within your community: solicit broad feedback, but avoid too many cooks in the kitchen.
- Is there anything your organization does that you wouldn’t want the public to hear about? If so, what and why? Perhaps you need to change your practices?
Nonprofits have the responsibility and privilege of being accountable to the public. Fortunately, the public generally understands that these organizations are run by human beings, often battling incredible obstacles.
Photo credit: wiccked
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