I’ve been in a difficult position over the past five months regarding the way that I learned to do advocacy versus the way others prefer to do advocacy. Two very different, polar opposite ways, each capable of pissing the other off.
I wrote a review of some of my experiences at a conference. I divided the posts so that there wasn’t one, overwhelmingly long post. I put positive and neutral observations into the first post and observations about things I found to be problematic in the second post. In my advocacy background, I was taught to find something to praise if something is going to be criticized or questioned. I set about to do that and it ruffled a lot of feathers in ways that I did not intend.
My advocacy background, going back to the (long ago) days of co-founding and co-running the Visions in Feminism conference and volunteering with the National Conference on Organized Resistance, has its roots in demanding openness and accountability. That entails doing everything publicly, with transparency. I personally and professionally prefer transparency for anything done in the public eye, be that public service, government, social justice, sustainable business, nonprofits, or social enterprise. But I’ve been butting heads with those that don’t feel this way, who don’t feel that transparency is best.
Russell Leffingwell said that a “foundation should have glass pockets,” meaning that we should all have the ability to look inside organizations to understand how their work is done. This openness inspires confidence, while keeping everything behind closed doors can cause suspicion and distrust. Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) generally choose to be unaccountable to the democratic process by nature; but any organization that wants to be intersectional and to create meaningful change must be held accountable by the people it wants to serve.
Sure, we are used to NPOs being the voice through which the concerns of others are voiced. But, it needs to be the other way around. People don’t serve NPOs — NPOs are supposed to serve people. In democracy, NPOs are the ruled, not the rulers. This is how social justice is built and even defined (as the fair and just relation between the individual and society).
The Foundation Center puts it best in its FAQ:
Transparency is, in a word, openness. A foundation that operates transparently is one that provides information about its work, operations and processes, and what it is learning in an open, accessible, and timely manner. For foundations operating in today’s digital age, transparency also really means having a virtual presence in addition to a physical one so anyone can quickly learn what you do, why you do it, and what difference it makes in the world.
Transparency is also a critical element of achieving accountability. Glasspockets relied on the One World Trust, one of our Glasspockets partners and global accountability experts, to provide a framework for assessing accountability. According to the One World Trust, accountability is made up of four elements, which include transparency, evaluation, participation, and complaint and response mechanisms.
Grantmakers often think of transparency in terms of how it benefits grantseekers and external audiences, pointing to how transparency serves to strengthen credibility, build public trust, and improve relations with grantees and other stakeholders. However, the value of increased foundation transparency may be even greater for grantmaking professionals themselves, as transparency also reduces duplication of effort, facilitates greater collaboration, and cultivates a community of shared learning and best practices.
When we do work in the public sphere, we need to accept that there will be mixed and negative reviews presented in public — nothing is perfect, no one is perfect, and we can all strive to be better. I believe that when something occurs in a public forum, it should be addressed openly and publicly. The belief behind public review is that it’s important to publicly bring attention to issues so that others who might be impacted can be made aware; so that others might be encouraged to bring forth their own experiences; and so an ongoing dialogue can be held with input from as many people as possible.
When things that happen in public are only addressed in private, it can feel as though it is being done secretively. It can feel as though the flaw, and thus, the work to fix it, is not being openly acknowledged. It can feel as though obfuscation of problems is desired and preferred. To me, taking discussion about public events to private-only forums is contrary and nonsensical. Without transparency, I believe there is no true accountability. And without true accountability, there cannot be lasting and meaningful change.