This week’s post will bring us back to some more concrete organizing skills. Transparency through communication and access to organizational information holds leadership accountable and builds trust with the community. It also falls into “best practices.” A lack of transparency doesn’t necessarily mean anything wrong is happening. Most organizations of all types and sizes could be better about transparency. However, it is when the community and donors do not have access to the full picture of an organization that things can go badly wrong. Worse, a lack of transparency (and record keeping) means sorting out the situation when something goes wrong is difficult.
Before I dig into the topic, want to take a moment to talk about security. We live in a country with powerful elements that many of us don’t trust, and some that we know will actively try to harm us. An argument can be made that at least some of the information I discuss in this post isn’t safe to have publicly accessible or searchable online. Just as I feel that each individual is the only one who can decide what is safe for them in their situation, organizations need to be careful they don’t put their leadership, participants, or donors at risk. However, I challenge all leadership to examine how they can share information, and to push their comfort level on disclosing more about their organizations. Too often “security concerns” are really code for “I don’t want to have to defend my choices.”
In the bi+ community, the community of people attracted to more than one gender who use labels like bisexual, pansexual, fluid, and queer, our experiences with our bi+ identities make trust hard to give. It takes extra effort to build the trust so people will feel they can participate, much less donate and volunteer. That trust can be even harder for bi+ people with other marginalized identities including trans and BIPOC folks. As leaders, we must do everything we can to build that trust so that we can serve our all our bi+ communities in the ways they need.
The aspirational goal for any organization is to publish agendas and minutes for board meetings (or any leadership meeting) along with annual reports. Who serves on the board or other leadership body should be easy to look up. All this information should be publicly accessible. Many staffed organizations don’t have this level of transparency, however I think it is important to try.
I wrote a few months ago about minutes and agendas at length. I suggest checking it out if you have any questions about how and why they are important. For this discussion of transparency, I will emphasize that publishing agendas before meetings and publishing minutes after meetings is important.
Agendas should be sent out ahead of the meeting so all participants know what topics will be covered. It should be publicly available so community members and other stake holders can plan to attend if they need to participate. If they only need to be at a part of the meeting, having the full agenda means they can plan their schedule accordingly. In addition, board members can prepare prior to discussions or making a decision. This reduces the need to delay agenda items because leadership needs more time to research, discuss, or think about the matter at hand.
Publishing the minutes of meetings helps communicate what the board is focusing on and what decisions they have made. Many people only see one or two dimensions of the work of an organization. By publishing minutes, you create a longitudinal record of what the board has discussed and decided. Community members can look at this record to see if topics of importance to them are under discussion, have had decisions made about them, or if perhaps the board needs to have the issue raised for their consideration. People considering joining leadership can use these records to orient themselves. Organizations vary by how much financial information they include with minutes, however I encourage you to include the basic financial reports that should be a part of every leadership meeting.
Annual reports are a more difficult goal. The annual reports large non profits put out are slick publications suitable for marketing the organization and soliciting donations from the most discerning supporters. However, the information they communicate is important to have available throughout the year so even if you can’t do a multipage, full color publication, you still need to communicate the same information.
All 501(c)3’s over a certain size have to complete a full Form 990 for the IRS each year. This contains most of the financial information you should include in an annual report and broadly shows how money is made or raised and how it is spent. Putting a copy of your most recent Form 990 on your website is a great first step to being more transparent about your organization. Organizations who are not required to file a full Form 990 can elect to file one anyway, which of course they can then publish. Form 990’s can also be used in other ways, such as to raise an organization’s rating on GuideStar, a website that collects information on non profit organizations.
Annual reports should include information about work the organization did over the previous year including programs, events, or other work they are engaged in. Most organizations focus on their accomplishments and highlight a personal interest story or two. Financial information is disclosed to show fund raising and income earned as well as how the money was spent in very high level financial reports or graphs.
Most organizations hold very tightly to their financial information. Publishing your finances opens the organization up to all sorts of scrutiny including showing where you are expecting funding to come from and what areas you consider most important. However, I believe that communicating with the community about your financial priorities and expectations can build a level of trust that no amount of personal conversations or good promotional material can provide. If you are not confident you can defend your financial choices, perhaps you need to readdress your priorities or take some time to educate your community and your donors about your work. As organizations working to serve our bi+ communities, we should be held accountable for how we prioritize our resources. We also need to educate our donors and potential donors about all the different things we do, their importance, and how much they cost. When we don’t, we risk donors not understanding how their donation serves the community through our work.
A very stark example of donors needing more education happened when marriage equality became legal in the U.S. Many LGBTQ organizations had focused on the work for marriage equality to such a great extent they either didn’t have robust programming in other areas or they hadn’t educated their donors about the importance of all the work they were doing. Donors evaporated and organizations were left without the financial resources needed for their continuing work until they reeducated donors. The LGBTQ community still had, and has, significant work to do before our communities enjoy the same civil rights as our straight peers.
Organizations often have annual meetings which can be used to share information about the organization and get folks excited to be more involved as volunteers. While this can serve as a way to communicate the same information as an annual report, you are going to want to have that information available throughout the year.
Transparency can be difficult. The more information you make public, the more people outside your leadership circle will understand, and possibility critique, your work. However, this is the essence of being accountable to our community and our donors. This transparency, combined with our actions, is how we build trust within our bi+ communities. Without trust between our organizations, members of our bi+ communities, and our other supporters, we will continue to struggle as organizations and as individuals.
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