The idea of radical transparency has been a popular concept in the business world for around the last decade or so. The term gets used quite a bit but in the context of the corporate world, it essentially refers to making decisions in public, being open about data, and generally being up front in areas where a corporation has traditionally tried to do the opposite. The idea is that in the chaotic world of the internet the only way you can influence your own reputation is to be part of the conversation in an open way. Increasingly, I’m beginning to see nonprofits adopt the same idea. So, should you adopt radical transparency?
My friend Dora is involved with an organization called Razom. The organization was formed a little over a year ago in response to the Maidan movement in Ukraine. It’s been fascinating to watch the organization over that period of time. First, the fundraising ROI is off the charts at less than $.01 expenses per dollar raised. But more interesting to me is their philosophy of complete financial transparency. For instance, their financial books are a publicly viewable google doc. Sure, it’s in cyrillic but Google will helpfully translate it for you if you haven’t kept up with your Ukrainian. For most nonprofits, having their finances down to every last expenditure displayed for all the world to see would send the CFO running away in horror. Additionally, when Razom was first trying to get its books in order it decided to have a “financial hackathon”. All members of Razom were invited to participate and help get the organization organized financially. Now, when I say “members” I mean people who have joined their Facebook page, so more or less the general public.
I love that Razom has begun its organizational life with transparency as a core value. While I am sure Razom faces its share of challenges just like any other nonprofit, I’m going to guess that trust between the organization and its donors is not one of them. No need for donors to guess how their money is being spent; they can see it any day at any time. Creating the Future, a social change research and development laboratory, conducts all of its board meetings via Google Hangout, open not only to viewing by the public, but participation by the public. What a crazy, radical, wonderful idea.
Given how poorly the vast majority of nonprofits steward their donors, we could benefit from considering these and similar practices. Most of those who are familiar with The Osborne Group know that we consider stewardship of paramount importance. 90% of the time we see a problem with an organization and its ability to fundraise, ad hoc stewardship or a lack of it all together features into the problem prominently. As a sector, we are bad in this area and we need to get better. Radical transparency might be the answer. We are not saying that you have to conduct your board meetings in public; there is a lot of work that goes along with this. But what if you video taped them and put them on the web? Or maybe conducted one meeting a year open to the public? What if you did make your P & L available on the web? What’s the worst that could happen?
The problem, of course, is that the way philanthropy, especially institutional philanthropy from corporations and foundations, is perceived makes this concept pretty scary. In essence, we are all terrified that if our funders saw all of our struggles that we risk losing funding. In this day and age we are all so focused ROI and metrics that we believe deep down that if our donors know that we aren’t perfect they’ll just support some “better” or more “efficient” operation.
But what if the opposite turned out to be true? What if the best way to show commitment to a strong ROI and social ROI was to have all of our struggles out in the open? Wouldn’t that show and even greater commitment to being the best organization we can be? Wouldn’t that build the most important of all bonds, trust?
Given how little most donors trust nonprofits, we would all do well to at least consider the idea.