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Just being transparent isn’t good enough

19/06/2014

Sharing what we do with the world will have no positive effect at all if what we’re doing isn’t the right thing in the first place!

Following successive negative media headlines on charity executive pay, regular research suggesting that public trust in charities may be on a downward trajectory and general hand-wringing about what we can do as a result, I want to take issue with those who propose transparency as the answer.

The human condition means that some individuals will always try to play the system. Fiddling expenses, fraud and the like will always happen and yes, under-qualified people will sometimes rise to positions where they make the wrong decisions.  This will undermine trust and credibility but transparency can’t counter the human condition; it can only share what’s being done to minimise those risks in relation to the outcomes being sought.  And for everyone else, being transparent about a few facts and figures doesn’t do enough to build credibility.quote-management-is-doing-things-right-leadership-is-doing-the-right-things-peter-drucker-53218

And here’s the key according to many sector notables.  For example, Joe Saxton (nfp Synergy) and Caron Bradshaw (Charity Finance Group) both talk about transparency only being useful if the facts and figures usually shared are accompanied with a narrative that explains them in the context of the key outcomes actually being delivered.

According to research conducted by the Third Sector Research Centre organisations and regulators tend to focus ‘transparency’ on the things that can be tangibly evidenced but;

“…evidence-based policy is closely aligned to the themes of audit, inspection and monitoring rather than learning, improvement and involvement.”

Ask yourself which group your charity fits in and then what do you track, measure and publish.

Surely it’s time to be collectively transparent about what it takes to get from a donation to the desired outcome.  That means salaries, overheads, timescales, volunteered hours and skills all offset against supporting the cause and making the difference we all set out to do.  Can we have these as reporting standards please?

A further observation is actually that ‘the public’ is not always the right audience to be focusing on in terms of transparency.  For some organisations, it matters far more that corporate sponsors of government funders perceive their credibility and effectiveness.  This is where we need to be transparent as above plus proactive in terms of finding out what else those audiences want to see, putting that in the context of outcomes and making a point of sharing it personally within them – without them needing to ask or regulate for it.

Lastly, the general public is getting lazy.  We are.  As Deborah Allcock Tyler put it, most of us “can’t be arsed to go to a footnote on page 17 of the accounts” to find the stories and context beyond the headline facts and figures.  We have to make it easier than this to find the right stories that counter negative headlines in advance of them appearing.

Consequently, here’s my top eight things I think the charity sector and individual organisations should be considering to get the best out of being transparent:

  1. Most importantly, put your own house in order. If the organisation is set up to deliver X then be sure you are doing it efficiently and effectively in the round, not just at a granular, single data-point level because that’s what can be easily measured
  2. Be transparent with the facts and figures in the context of the outcomes they directly support, not in isolation
  3. Make these evidence-based stories the core of your communications strategy with the public and wider audiences
  4. Share regularly, not just at reporting time, so the context-plus-numbers just becomes the ‘transparency’ norm.  Then keep doing it
  5. Accept that we cannot please all of the people all of the time and let the positive impacts shared do the talking.  That said, when errors do occur, put them in context and front up proactively before being ‘found out’
  6. Build positive relationships with media owners and editorial teams – engaging them in putting together the context for transparency – to increase the chances of good news stories being featured as willingly as negative coverage
  7. When negative coverage does appear and it’s felt the need to counter is strong enough, do it with the context already prepared for proactive communications – directly linking facts and figures to key outcomes
  8. Similarly, when the evidence suggests things aren’t going well, be transparent about what you are doing to turn it around.  Provide regular updates on progress and invite support from key target audiences to contribute to making the difference your outcomes deliver

And there’s a question for the public too (me included)…

If you want the transparency and evidence to be sure that your donations are making the difference you want them to, how much of your donation can a charity spend on collating and providing you with that information?  Or should that be someone else’s donation?

There’s probably a research project in there somewhere.

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