What We Can’t See Can Hurt You

I read a really good article, called Transparency Can Keep A Non-Profit Out of Trouble, that shed light on an increasingly pervasive issue. While many organizations are beginning to adopt the processes that for-profit businesses use (a good thing) but forgetting that they are still non-profit organizations (a bad thing, very very bad thing). A primary example of this is the fact that organizations have become increasingly proprietary with information, whether it be records, projects  or policies.

Perhaps one reason for this is that non-profits forget the reason why many for-profit organizations feel the need to be so secretive; economic edge. And because the primary goal is to earn as much profit as is humanly possible, it helps to have as much of a competitive advantage as one can.

However, non-profit organizations are incorporated for the benefit of the public at large. And courts have long recognized that society advances when there is the freedom to transact and an open exchange of, or accessibility to, information. Consequently, though non-profit organizations do have to fend for survival, this ultimately cannot, and should not, be done at the expense of the public.

In the end, there are those organizations that aren”t transparent for rouge reasons, those organizations that aren”t transparent because they don”t feel they have to be (like the one in the article) and those that aren”t transparent because they just don”t know how to be. If you have to be one of the three, I hope you fall into the latter.

And if that”s the case, here”s a couple of things to keep in mind

  • Put policies in place. This gives  staff insight and direction that keeps them from making moves that may seem evasive or less than upfront.
  • Have point people and processes for inquiries. If someone emails a question or request, make it so they get an automatic response notifying them that their correspondence has been received and will be responded to shortly. Make sure you have a vehicle in place that allows you to receive this correspondence fairly quickly ( and I don”t mean  the personal email address with hundreds of Groupon and Horoscope messages or the one you check every six months.) Also,  create some kind of tickler or alert that reminds you when you need to respond.
  • Take local classes and get information on your local transparency laws. Some states have laid out requirements and standards where others  ask that organizations used reasonable efforts.
  • Understand that your expectations of privacy are nothing like that of a business. If there is truly confidential or sensitive information you feel should not be disclosed, get the appropriate agreements in place. And brainstorm how you may be able to field questions in a way that will not disclose anything that shouldn”t be disclosed.
  • Don”t allow the size of your organization to deceive you. That your non-profit has only 2 full-time staff is no excuse, and all the more reason why it is important for you to be thinking about transparency. The smaller the organization, the fewer the checks and balances and the more likely it is for information will be unlawfully withheld.