In April 2013, I was invited to participate in a meeting organized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called Advancing Social Media Measurement for Foundations, where I presented on the State of Nonprofit Social Media Measurement. The participants were a cross-disciplinary group and included people who work at different foundations in the areas of evaluation, communication, social media, and programs as well as people who work for nonprofits and as consultants who work in evaluation, social media, network analysis, data scientists, and others.
We had two working sessions where we focused on defining outcomes, strategies, key performance metrics, and measurement methods for five outcome areas that may be common to many foundations communication strategies including transparency—a topic that KD Paine and I devoted an entire chapter to in our book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit.
Transparency is a developing practice for nonprofits and their funders, and the field of measurement of transparency for foundations and nonprofits is embryonic. To be transparent means that a foundation is open, accountable, and honest with its stakeholders and the public. Transparency exists to a lesser or greater extent in all organizations. Greater transparency is a good thing, not just because it is morally correct, but because it can provide measurable benefits.
Measureable Benefits of Transparency
Transparency helps an organization by engaging its audiences and by speeding the processes of learning and growing. Transparency helps foundation programs improve in ways they might not otherwise. Two of transparency’s readily measureable benefits are increased efficiency, and increases in the stakeholder perceptions of trust, commitment, and satisfaction.
Increased efficiency: Transparency makes organizations more efficient because it removes the gatekeeping function, which not only takes extra time, but can be an exhausting way to work. When foundations are working transparently, problems are easier to solve, questions are easier to answer, and stakeholder needs are met more quickly.
Increased trust, satisfaction, and commitment: Dr. Brad Rawlins’ research has demonstrated that increased organizational transparency is directly tied to increases in trust, credibility, and satisfaction among the organization’s stakeholders. He sees a key benefit of transparency as, “enhancing the ethical nature of organizations in two ways: first, it holds organizations accountable for their actions and policies; and second, it respects the autonomy and reasoning ability of individuals who deserve to have access to information that might affect their position.” (Rawlins is the Dean of the Communications Department at Arkansas State University)
Now that we have defined what working transparently means and the benefits, what is the method for measuring it?
Transparency is like any other measurement challenge; you first need to be clear about what you are measuring. There are different ways to measure transparency. The first is assessing the impact of a change in transparency on your foundation by measuring the change in the benefits of that transparency; in this case, efficiency or trust. The second way is a self-evaluation to determine how transparent your organization is.
How to Measure Improvements in Efficiency
To measure efficiency you need to have a chat with your accounting and operations departments to figure out what your leadership team is already tracking for efficiency metrics. If they aren’t already doing it, then chances are that someone in one of those departments knows how to do it and can help you. Typical efficiency metrics include:
- Percent reduction in response time from inquiry to satisfied resolution
- Percent reduction in staff hours responding to queries
- Percent increase in satisfaction and knowledge of employees
- The benefits of increased transparency can also be quantified by a relationship survey (see Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, Chapter 7).
How to Measure Improvements in Trust
Several studies have shown that the more transparent people perceive an organization to be, the more likely they are to trust that organization. The more the organization provides honest, open, and occasionally vulnerable communications, the more people trust the institution. Amazingly, the ability to be open and transparent was found to be more influential than competence in terms of willingness to trust. In other words, people care more about your willingness to be open and transparent than whether you are competent enough to do what you say you are going to do!
How to Measure Your Own Transparency
While the field of transparency measurement is relatively nascent, thanks to the work of Rawlins and others there are established techniques to quantify it in your own organization. There are two elements to measuring transparency. The first is “How do I know just how transparent we are?” The second is: “Do our stakeholders perceive us as transparent? And, consequently, do they trust us?”
Measurement of transparency examines four separate but equal components:
- Participation – The organization asks for feedback, involves others, takes the time to listen, and is prompt in responding to requests for information.
- Substantial – The organization provides information that is truthful, complete, easy to understand, and reliable.
- Accountable – The organization is forthcoming with bad news, admits mistakes, and provides both sides of a controversy.
- Absence of secrecy – The organization doesn’t leave out important but potentially damaging details, the organization doesn’t obfuscate its data with jargon or confusion, and the organization is not slow to provide data or only discloses data when required.
In Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, we recommended using survey or focus group questions based on the work of Brad Rawlins or the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment, which your foundation can use to audit its own transparency. Typically a survey like this is administered either as a group discussion, or as a written survey followed by a group discussion of the results. Some of the areas of discussion that should emerge as a result of such an exercise are outlined below:
- Is your organization participative?
- Do we involve stakeholders to help identify the information we need?
- Do we ask the opinions of stakeholders before making decisions?
- Do we take the time with stakeholders to understand who we are and what we need?
- Do we provide substantial information?
- Do we provide detailed information to stakeholders?
- Do we make it easy to find the information stakeholders need?
- Are we prompt when responding to requests for information from stakeholders?
- Are we forthcoming with information that might be damaging to the organization?
- Do we provide information that can be compared to industry standards?
- Do we present more than one side of controversial issues?
- Are we accountable?
- Do we provide information in a timely fashion to stakeholders?
- Do we provide information that is relevant to stakeholders?
- Do we provide information that could be verified by an outside source?
- Do we provide information that can be compared to previous performance?
- Do we provide information that is complete?
- Do we provide information that is easy for stakeholders to understand?
- Do we provide accurate information to stakeholders?
- Do we provide information that is reliable?
- Do we present information in language that is clear?
- Are we open to criticism?
- Do we freely admit when we make mistakes?
- Do we provide only part of the story to stakeholders?
- Do we leave out important details in the information we provide to stakeholders?
- Do we provide information that is full of jargon and technical language that is confusing to people?
- Do we blame outside factors that may have contributed to the outcome when reporting bad news?
- Do we provide information that is intentionally written in a way to make it difficult to understand?
- Are we slow to provide information to stakeholders?
- Do we only disclose info when it is required?
- Do we only disclose “good” news?
Measuring Stakeholder Perceptions
The second part of transparency measurement is assessing whether your stakeholders perceive you as transparent. To measure whether your supporters and stakeholders perceive you as transparent you need to ask them whether they agree or disagree with the following statements. These questions could be added to grantee perception reports or other surveys that are routinely conducted by foundations.
- The organization wants to understand how its decisions affect people like me.
- The organization provides information that is useful to people like me for making informed decisions.
- I think it is important to watch this organization closely so that it does not take advantage of people like me.
- The organization wants to be accountable to people like me for its actions.
- The organization wants people like me to know what it is doing and why it is doing it.
- This organization asks for feedback from people like me about the quality of its information.
- This organization involves people like me to help identify the information I need.
- The organization provides detailed information to people like me.
- The organization makes it easy to find the information people like me need.
- The organization asks the opinions of people like me before making decisions.
The transition to transparency may be discomforting, but the benefits of inviting people in and sharing in a foundation’s strategy development far outweigh the potential downsides. Imagine how much stronger your network’s reactions, input, and suggestions will make your organization—and how exciting it will feel to share your great work with more people. And, with a measurement strategy in place, you can know for sure that your effort has paid off, and that your organization is changing from the inside out.
This article originally appeared on the Glasspockets blog Transparency Talk.