Voluntary Transparency, and what it could teach us about advocacy

Another fantastic post from the always-terrific Beth Kanter, about whom many great things are said on the Internet every day, and they’re still an understatement.

This one is about what it could mean for the nonprofit sector if the data from 990s (those reports that the backroom folks at your nonprofit prepare, all about your organization’s finances and governance) were really available, publicly, in a usable format.

I think it’s a fabulous idea, and I’m totally for it. In addition to the exciting potential benefits described in the post, I also think that having such data discussed openly in a public forum (as well as the fact that it would be public, period) would help the nonprofit sector in our advocacy as a sector, too: instead of relying on anecdote to defend ourselves when elected officials argue that we are wasteful or unaccountable, we could use actual, representative, nearly real-time, sector-wide datasets to demonstrate our fiscal acumen, just as our impact should speak to our true accountability.

The post suggests that a dataset seeded with nonprofits’ 990 information could:

  • Enable analysis of sector-wide issues such as “economic downturn on nonprofits”
  • Facilitate discussion of the “relationship between public and private dollars in providing social services”
  • Add to insights about different types of nonprofits (the post mentions 501(c)4 lobbying organizations
  • “Enable more people and organizations to analyze, visualize, and mash up the data, creating a large public community that is interested in the nonprofit sector and can collaborate to find ways to improve it.”

Since the push to get the IRS to release these data publicly will take awhile, and since my reading of A Voice for Nonprofits (which included interviews and data culled from nonprofits that voluntary released them) is pretty fresh in my mind, I am thinking about what it could do for our nonprofit sector if we just went ahead and started a culture change to bring the same kind of disclosure voluntarily that Beth’s post argues for requiring.

I’m not talking about the kind of coerced and cumbersome ‘accounting’ some states are considering requiring of nonprofit organizations.

I don’t even mean the trends, noted at least by me, of more nonprofits including their strategic plans and annual reports (and sometimes even their 990s) on their websites.

I mean, what if organizations were really open, with each other, with their donors, with their clients, about the kinds of advocacy in which they engage (at least after the fact, since total transparency is sometimes not strategic)? So that we could learn, from each others’ experiences, about what works, and what doesn’t; about how much advocacy is needed to ‘tip’ issues (a sort of dosing effect); about how organizations’ advocacy practices change as their organizational profiles change; and about how advocacy differs within sub-sectors of nonprofits (in a sort of sector-wide extension of the kind of research included in A Voice for Nonprofits)?

And what if, by sharing in that way, we could also gain the corollary benefit of just normalizing the advocacy experience, so that nonprofits see how common it really is (because I’ve truly never met any nonprofit leader who regularly passes up a chance to try to convince a powerful person of how important and impactful their work is)?

What does your organization share, and with whom, about how and when and why you advocate? What would it take you to share more? And what would it mean for you if others reciprocated?

2 responses to “Voluntary Transparency, and what it could teach us about advocacy

  1. I really wish more 501 c 3’s did policy work.

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