Transparency for impact, not just compliance
How to be more open in your organization
(The Great Workplace 2.0 Note: It is great to see other successful entrepreneurs writing about the fundamentals that make a Great Workplace. We TOOK the liberty of sharing this example)
By Mario Morino
Smart Business Cleveland | February 2011
Greater transparency is coming to all sectors of our economy — and that’s a good thing. But not if it brings perfunctory compliance rather than true introspection.
Recently, I read a wonderful blog post on The Economist’s website that hit the nail on the head:
Customers and governments are not interested in more information, more numbers, more reports or more sophisticated press briefings. What civil society is seeking is trustworthy, relevant and understandable information about how a company runs its business and the features of the products and services it offers to the market.
I couldn’t agree more. Transparency is about our value set and how we act on it — not about checking a set of boxes or posting a set of documents on a website. It is far more important for an organization to be open and transparent in the way it functions and manages its internal actions — how it plans, executes, makes decisions, engages and assesses — than for the organization to do most of the things that typically fall under the rubric of “transparency.”
I will focus on the nonprofit sector, where I have spent most of my time for the past 15 years. But the challenges I describe are, by no means, unique to nonprofits.
During my years working with nonprofits, I have come in contact with organizations that have done a thorough job of complying with the letter of the law on public disclosures. Yet, in spite of these trappings of transparency, I’ve found myself questioning the “realness” of their transparency. Here are some typical examples:
- A board member and the head of an organization clash hard over differences of opinion. The board member resigns in frustration. The rest of the board and management team hear only that the board member’s resignation is due to an increasing workload.
- At every board meeting, the founder of an organization tells an evocative story about how the organization’s services are helping those it serves. When the board asks for results on the organization’s overall and collective impact, the founder can’t present any substantive information, beyond individual anecdotes, to illustrate that the organization is making a difference for those it serves.
- An organization reports on the number of youth its programs “touch” each year, giving the impression it serves 5,000 youth each year. The organization does not have the ability to say which youth actually engaged in which programs, for how long and to what benefit. When the numbers are probed, it turns out that the organization serves fewer than 1,000 youth in a meaningful way.
We can handle the truth
One of the biggest challenges that I see in the nonprofit sector is the fear of confronting the unvarnished truth. How often would just one question that probed a little deeper, pressed a little harder or called out opaque answers stimulate the organization to confront the real issues? As board members, executives and staff, we too often want to keep everything positive. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. We’re afraid to rock the boat.
The truth hurts, as the saying goes. But don’t we have to dig for the truth and ferret out the facts as to what is (and, equally important, is not) working so we know how to improve?
We must not allow skin-deep, compliance-driven transparency to become an acceptable substitute for values-driven, culturally ingrained efforts. We must use our society’s focus on transparency to encourage a broader ethic that will build and reward the kind of organizational introspection and openness that enables greater impact across all sectors of our economy.