Transparency: A Note on Your Organization’s Bittersweet Burden

By Tarah DeSousa

In a recent court ruling, the IRS was ordered to release digitally-readable versions of charity tax forms.  An open-records advocacy group called Public.Resource.org filed a lawsuit against the government agency for converting Form 990s into PDF images which cannot be searched using data analytics.  The group said the tax exempt sector that brings in $1.5 trillion in revenue should make their data free and accessible for the public.

FOIA disasters aside, should your organization be scared?

In an age of transparency where your nonprofit is just a click away from public scrutiny, sharing too much may get you in all kinds of trouble.  But the backlash you might receive for a cover-up could be the nail in your charitable coffin.  So how much is too much, and what can your organization do to be forthright with its constituents?

1.) Communicate at all levels:

No matter the size of your nonprofit, you will most likely have a hierarchy of leadership and power, within your staff and certainly within your donor base.  Make sure there is a free flow of communication between EVERYONE.  There cannot be secrets in the nonprofit sector.

Transparency and the freedom to express ideas and opinions should be at the forefront of your organization’s mission and values.  In order for you to win the pocketbooks of your donors, you must first win their trust, and you will do this through honest communication.

Try to be as open as you can about “where the money goes” and take suggestions on improvements with an open ear.  If you can better the lives of your client by finding the perfect balance of allotment between programs, why wouldn’t you?

2.) Never lie about financial records:

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, it is almost impossible to hide your dirty laundry.  If your organization has had “bad press” in the past, it will always be there for the world to see.

This sector is not often filled with greedy individuals, but the opportunities for disaster may arise when the stakes are high and your donor base is meager.  Don’t let your leadership take the easy way out.  Always tell the truth about what your organization is bringing in and how you are receiving donations.

If you do not already have a spreadsheet of donors with demographic and personal information as well as their preferred platform for contact (email, postal mail, social media) then you should start one, immediately.

Who knows what the fate of nonprofits will be regarding open-records inquiries, but you can make a change today that will save you tomorrow.

About the Author:  Tarah DeSousa is a junior studying Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.  She is also pursuing a minor in English and a Certificate in Writing. When Tarah isn’t reading or writing for class, she is working at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center as a communications intern.  In her free time she enjoys rowing, running, shopping and spending time with friends.

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