The Transparency Litmus Test

check-circle-transparencyWe talk a lot about nonprofit transparency and how essential it is today to provide potential supporters with up-to-date, accurate and useful information. Transparency is no longer an ideal to strive toward, it is an operational requirement that should be as carefully monitored as an organization’s budget, its allocations and its income. Transparency (or the lack of it ) influences reputation and reputation, as we all know, trumps everything else.

Here are a few ways to determine how transparent your organization is.

1. Look at your web site – it is where many people will go to check out your organization. At minimum, the site should make it easy for a visitor to find:

  • your mission statement and statement of purpose – ideally, written in some reader-friendly language, presented on your home page
  • your annual report (if you publish one) as well as your most current, audited financial statement and your IRS letter of determination
  • program information – program descriptions, where they are performed, how they have performed
  • list of your board members names and their titles – thumbnail bios of board members earns your organization extra points
  • list of key staff member, their titles and how to reach them
  • your telephone number – yes, a real number with a live person at the other end
  • a “contact us” format that is easy to complete and that gets a response within 24 hours

2. Look at your other communications – the publications, letters, advertisements that you use to reach important audiences. Check to be sure your communications include:

  • your web site address
  • your telephone number
  • key contact person if applicable and their email address
  • with clear ways pointing people to relevant information on your web site

3. Look at your in-person communications efforts to engage your supporters with your organizational leaders. What are you doing to reach beyond the board? Rate your performance on these measures:

  • Accessibility – are you holding in-person, conference call meetings/programs with a range of constituent groups in locales and at times that make it easy for people to attend?
  • Frequency – are you offering engagements with key constituencies several times a year?
  • Urgency – are you prepared to communicate during an emergency? when an important issue arises?
  • Interactivity – do you encourage people’s opinions, comments, suggestions and respond to them?

Once you know how transparent your organization is today, you can work on those areas that are not up to standard. According to a 2008 Guidestar report on the state-of-nonprofit transparency, “only 43 percent posted their annual reports. A much smaller proportion (13 percent) posted their audited financial statements, and a miniscule number (3 percent) posted their letters of determination.”

So don’t beat yourself up if your organization didn’t score as well as you hoped. Just get to work making your organization as open and transparent as you can. It will pay off in the long run.

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional who currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.