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Viewpoints

This year, give the gift of transparency

Andrew Means on why nonprofits need to support their anecdotal success stories with concrete data when telling donors about their impact.

It’s that time of the year again. End of year appeals are going out. Annual reports are being drafted. And each of them is going to contain stories—lots and lots of stories. Stories about how powerful our programs are. Stories that show lives being changed. Stories that are meant to compel readers to open up their wallets and help us create more stories next year.

But are these narratives we choose to tell about ourselves really true?

I don’t mean to conjure up images of evil development directors and marketing managers conspiratorially looking to fleece over donors. But we should take pause when, for example, McDonald’s tries to tell me that I’m going to be purchasing “Big, Beefy, Bliss.”

One one hand, these artfully-crafted marketing campaigns are understandable—in the public or the private sphere. In the nonprofit sector specifically, stories are how we advertise our work. Like commercials, these narratives are meant to compel readers and viewers to action, and they often have major impact on the effectiveness of fundraising initiatives.

There’s a problem, though. At least when I see the Big, Beefy, Bliss story from McDonald’s, I know how to interpret it because I’ve actually eaten at McDonald’s. I know how to calibrate the story I’m being told because I’ve paid for and consumed their product. It can be much harder to put nonprofits’ stories into context because the people paying for the services are typically not the ones receiving them. Donors rarely know or talk to, let alone meet, the beneficiaries of the services they are paying for.

People who support nonprofits don’t have the feedback mechanism they have for other financial decisions. When deciding where to eat or what clothes to buy or what hotel to stay in, consumers can calibrate the stories those companies tell themselves with other pieces of information. They can draw on previous experience purchasing those services. They can research opinions directly from other consumers. In the private sector, the high incidence of repeat purchases and word-of-mouth discussion drives up quality. We need that kind of feedback and incentive structure in the nonprofit world.

So this year, I propose giving your donors the gift of transparency.

In addition to sharing heartwarming anecdotes, make sure to provide your donors concrete information about the quantity and quality of the impact your organization is making. Put the results of an evaluation report into an easily digestible interactive tool. Send your monitoring reports directly to a website, like Splash does with Proving.it. Get creative with how you choose to transparently present the scope of the work your organization is actually accomplishing.

Transparency is a gift only you can give. No one can force you to be transparent. Sometimes, it can even be a bit of a risk to be transparent. But it is one of the most important things you can do.

Until we all choose to transparently share our outcomes, billions of dollars will continue to fund well-told stories that mask ineffective interventions. When this happens it means that people are going unserved. Problems are going unsolved. Change is not occurring. We aren’t making the kind of progress we could be.

My hope is for a world where organizations are transparent about the impact they are generating. Where we take an honest look at our impact and use that information to better achieve our missions. Where donors use their newfound knowledge about impact to direct their resources to the groups doing the most good. When this happens, we’ll be able to make more progress with the same amount of resources. With expanded confidence in the genuine impact of the nonprofit sector, donations will increase.

This world is entirely possible, but it depends on you. So this year, give the gift of transparency.