Tag Archives: transparency

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?

Connected Citizens in the New Year

I read the Knight Foundation’s Connected Citizens report (subtitled, “The Power, Potential, and Peril of Networks”) a few months ago (it came out in late April, I think, but, giving birth kind of put me behind in my reading this year), and I’ve been thinking about it more lately as I look to the future, especially since the report is, itself, in part an effort to predict where and how networks may change our lives and our efforts for social change, in the years to come.

I expect that some of the questions the report poses, and some of the hypotheses it suggests, will filter into my thinking and writing about advocacy (especially in the online context) and community organizing over the coming year, but here are my reactions as we straddle this period between the past and the future, at the (almost) dawn of 2012.

  • Do we truly have greater transparency today? Or does the proliferation of information mean that it’s that much easier to hide the important stuff, in the midst of a lot that doesn’t matter? I’m torn about this, really–on the one hand, there’s the demise of traditional investigative journalism, with all that that means for our ability to uncover the truth and publicize it; on the other, there’s the rise of citizen-supported journalism and independent cataloguing of so much that happens in our world. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s like “the truth is out there,” but will we be able to find and recognize it, in the middle of so much…stuff? And what does that mean for our efforts to be megaphones for the voices that are so often silenced, as we know we must, in order to truly empower those whose stories need to become part of our policy narratives? Since policymakers are vulnerable to this same information overload, how do we push past the noise to be heard?
  • Will technology enable us to turn ever-more inward, or seek and build alliances with unlikely partners? Or both? How do we resist the tendency towards silos, or, indeed, is such homogeneity all bad, in terms of building strong identity? Since, again, policymakers are people, too, how will their increasing reliance on what their “friends” prefer, in terms of policy approaches, and, indeed, even what their social networks hold as “truth” and “information” impact our ability to construct policy solutions that can cross rigid ideological lines? I’m not too optimistic, really.
  • How can we engage our crowds so that the barrier to participation is minimal but still meaningful? As the default for “participation” becomes quick engagement, how do we invest in the deeper relationships that are truly transformational?
  • Social workers know how to “design for serendipity.” From our direct practice experiences, we get the idea that we cannot predict outcomes flawlessly but must, instead, create the spaces (physically and, more importantly socially and psychologically) for real magic to happen in people’s lives. This makes us, I believe, champion “network weavers”, if we can leverage those clinical skills into social change work.
  • Anyone who has ever read the comments on an online newspaper article about immigration policy knows the link between anonymity and the deterioration of dialogue in a public sphere. The challenge here, as we increasingly shift to broader conversations detached from a local, identified context, is to figure out how to cultivate relationships that breed accountability while taking advantage of the boundary-less nature of online networks.
  • We can all get excited about the rise of mutual support and the tremendous potential of networks to address real, pressing need. But we should also be very afraid of the parallel risk that such indigenous resource provision becomes an excuse for abdication of our collective (read: public) (read: we still need taxes) responsibility to uphold the social contract and provide for the needs of those without strong networks in the first place (because such network resources are, like nearly everything else in this world, not evenly distributed).

    Again, there’s more there than what I’ve captured here, including some thoughts relevant to my work with the Sunflower Foundation, particularly this question of whether measuring network health and strength can tell you how close you’re getting to a desired change, given that networks are, by definition, rather uncontrollable and certainly dynamic entities. But, in chiming in so late on the conversation, I’m partly hoping to restart it a bit, since we know that we’ll be dealing, increasingly, with networks in our work in the years to come–indeed, they may become the default way of approaching our shared concerns–and we need to understand how to engage them effectively, how to critically evaluate their roles and their shortcomings, and how their existence will shape ours.

  • Admitting Failure

    One of my oldest son’s favorite family games is “let’s talk about Mommy’s bad decisions.”

    Yes, seriously.

    It started from a comment I made once in disciplining him, about how bad choices have consequences, and even Mommy and Daddy have discovered that through our own mistakes.

    As is perhaps to be expected, he really latched onto that concept (although, somehow, it’s the idea of Mommy’s bad decisions that have captured his imagination, much more than Daddy’s!), and so the aftermath of his own disciplinary consequences often includes a recitation of Mommy’s bad decisions.

    Speeding tickets are some of his favorites; I think he likes the imagery of the flashing lights.

    I thought of Sam, and how obvious it is that he’s learning from these mistakes (and how much he delights in knowing that he’s not alone in making them!) when I read about this relatively new website: Admitting Failure.

    It was started to help those in the development community learn about each other’s failures, own and move on from their own, and create a climate in which failures are acknowledged as a path to greater innovation and excellence, with the understanding that people’s lives are literally at stake.

    Here’s what they say about why the site is important:
    “Competition for financial support in the aid sector has resulted in a ‘worst practice’ – secrecy. This site and those who support it are attempting to correct that error, and create a best practice of openness, transparency and honesty. We’re all in this together. We’re on the same side in the fight against poverty, inequality and unnecessary suffering in too many forms. Let’s admit our failures to find greater successes.”

    You can submit your own failure to the site (failures are rated based on users’ perceptions of the honesty and insight shared by the fail-er), browse others’ failures, and discuss failure itself, and the role it plays in progress, with others engaged in similar work.

    I think it’s pretty awesome, and I have so many ideas for how a similar culture of openness about failure could make a difference in the social service world, too, where we certainly fail, and where we certainly have a lot to learn from those failures.

    We have a lot of collective knowledge, for example, about what hasn’t worked in preventing teenage pregnancies, or helping adolescents avoid drugs, or fighting poverty in single-mother households, or getting low-income neighborhoods mobilized for civic engagement. We just aren’t doing that much to share those failures, and to even sort of celebrate them–not in a “yay, we failed!” way, but in a “we can own this and become better for it” way.

    The other day, my son got distracted while playing his computer game and ran out of time to help me with a cooking project he’d been looking forward to. He wailed, and then he said, “that’s kind of like when you overslept, Mommy, and you were late to work and got in trouble” (for the record, it was in 1994). I told him he was right, and I offered to set the kitchen timer the next time.

    We fail.

    And we learn.

    And, if we’re lucky, others fail. And they share.

    And then we learn, too.

    Watching sausage being made

    I love teaching policy classes.

    And I love talking about policy.

    But I know that our policymaking processes, at different levels of government and across many topic areas and within the contests of opposing viewpoints, and often seemingly hidden behind closed doors, can seem arcane, muddled, and even completely baffling, including to students who desperately want to understand how the policies that affect their work, and their clients’ lives, are made.

    And, so, I’m always looking for tools that will help make policymaking real, for students and for social work practitioners in the field, to demystify what’s really not all that mysterious a process: the way that power collides with power to, more often than not, prevent anything really seismic from changing at all.

    Especially after feedback from my generous and kind and forgiving first class of students, I’ve incorporated more case studies, guest speakers from the field, interactive online content, and classroom debates, to try to peel back the layers and help students engage with the policies that so need their voices.

    And one of the things that I have to help students struggle with is their innate disgust, really, with some of the political realities. Social workers are mostly a pretty ethical bunch, and we pride ourselves on process, and so learning about how budget rules are broken and deals get made can tend to send social work students running as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

    And I understand that. I do.

    When I first taught U.S. history and government to new immigrant adolescents, more than 10 years ago, I was so caught up in my own disillusionment that I had a hard time even reading the Bill of Rights without rolling my eyes.

    But they reminded me then, and so I remind my students now, that no system of governance ever got better by people sitting on the sidelines. Our democracy has managed, perhaps almost in spite of itself, some pretty wonderful victories for justice, and there’s tremendous potential for more. Besides, if we’re going to throw up our hands in despair, we might as well be holding a protest sign.

    In other words: do not avert your eyes. We need witnesses.

    And that’s why I’m so excited about some of the new tools (and some that aren’t SO new, now, anymore) to help people understand policymaking, and the workings of our government, in meaningful ways.

    There’s Many Bills, which is a visualization of legislative content that organizes it into color-coded themes, making even really bad bills look pretty. You can compare different versions of bills related to the same problem topics, such as housing policy. You can also search by a member’s legislative activity, which is pretty stark sometimes.

    Another IBM lab tool is Many Eyes, which I’ve used to make maps for nonprofit organizations before, but which can also do text content analysis, so that you can see tag clouds, for example, of speeches made by prominent elected officials. The graphic above is a visualization of Obama’s Inaugural Address.

    Probably the single best online tool I’ve found for information about the activities of Congress is Open Congress, which has a blog, profiles of individual members, real-time status of the House and Senate, summaries of recent votes, overviews of bills in the news and bills recently filed, and lots of opportunities for comments and engagement with the content. One of the aspects I like most about it is the extensive set of tools to improve individuals’ access to the information: RSS feeds, email alerts, integration with your social media platforms…I use it not just as a go-to for information about Congress but also as a feed of current happenings, for the times when even I forget to look.

    There’s a lot more on the Presidency than members of Congress, and some states aren’t covered at all, but PolitiFact can be a good starting point in sorting out competing claims in the political arena. Of course, here, there’s an obvious element of subjective judgment (as always, in politics!), but the claims are pretty well cited and supported, and the ratings are clear and complete. My very favorite part? Their interest in researching the truth behind chain emails submitted by users. Social Security for Mexicans abroad, anyone?

    A similar site that’s unfortunately not very updated is Speechology, which, at least at one point, had a bit wider reach and a more interactive feel, analyzing candidates’ promises and assertions, not only in speeches, but also in campaign advertisements. I would hope and expect that it might be ‘reactivated’, a bit, for the 2012 cycle, at least, and it could be a model for what local media analysts could do regarding regional officials.

    What I find most helpful about these last two sites, really, isn’t even as much their content as their premise: we have a right to understand what our elected officials are doing, and we have the tools with which to do so.

    Then, when we don’t like what we see, we know what to do.