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Is Transparency the new ‘Impact’?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Notes from the CEO
The Standards

“The truth is that transparency is something that a company mostly controls and that mostly reassures its customers. By giving people a window into its workings, a company can show it has a sound process that it’s adhering to. It can avoid asking customers to have faith in a black box. The greater the transparency, in other words, the greater the trust.” - Trust in the Age of Transparency, Julia Kirby,  Harvard Business Review, August 2012

If Canadians only understood the outcomes of our work, questions about cost would diminish. It’s a familiar refrain that has been uttered by sector leaders (myself included!) time and time again. Impact over cost. Outcomes instead of overhead. 

But what if the path to understanding and appreciating our value was paved by trust? And what if trust was fostered more by openness and less by data or stories?  

In other words… is transparency the new ‘impact’?  

Heresy you say? Perhaps. But let’s consider that the charitable sector has struggled to convert many Canadians, a number of whom have positive views of organizations, into committed donors and volunteers. Maybe the rallying cry needs to be reframed.

This week, Imagine Canada launches its first national public relations campaign to support the growing Standards Program through increased brand awareness. The goal, make this accreditation program THE recognized brand for good governance, transparency and accountability. It marks the beginning of our long-term commitment to public-facing marketing.

The campaign, based on the findings of a national market research study, raises some interesting questions for charitable leaders to consider.

To know us is to love us… really?

Love might be a bit strong, but the data does suggest a powerful correlation between familiarity and the willingness to support organizations. 

The survey found that knowledge of how charities operate is low. Only 24% of Canadians said they were ‘extremely or very familiar’ with charities and their activities. This group of respondents expressed high trust levels (52%).

In addition, the ‘unfamiliar’ group was not wishy-washy about trust. Fifty-five percent of respondents identifying as ‘not very or not at all familiar’ with charities indicated that they had low trust levels (24%). I believe this to be a key finding. A lack of knowledge doesn’t translate into ambivalence, it means low trust. 

It seems there is much to be gained from improving the levels of familiarity that our stakeholders have with our organizations. There is also a clear suggestion that society will move to a place of low trust in the absence of an open relationship.

Can third-party accreditation really affect perceptions?

Throughout our daily lives we often see evidence that we live in an increasingly polarized society. Trust in institutions is dropping and charities are caught up in the changes of public opinion. Julia Kirby’s Harvard Business Review article talks about this, “As standards for trustability continue to rise, the companies, brands, and organizations shown to lack trustability will be punished more and more severely.”    

One of the goals of the market research study was to better understand the link between independent certification and the attitudes and possible behaviours of Canadians. Intuitively, we believed that a public demonstration of an organization’s commitment to organizational excellence would translate into positive actions.

Good news… the gut proved to be correct!

Nearly three quarters (72%) said they were more likely to trust and have confidence in charities that have achieved third-party accreditation. Half indicated that they would be more likely to give to a charity that had achieved rigorous accreditation standards and that percentage rises to 85% among the strongest advocates of accreditation.

We had hoped that programs like the Standards would prove to be a contributor to enhance trust and the study results definitely show this to be the case. Highly transparent organizations will have a profound market place advantage in terms of building donor trust, raising funds and attracting volunteers.

What is the relationship between transparency and trust in relation to impact and overhead?

First, let me say that I don’t believe there is a panacea or silver bullet when thinking about affecting the relationship between charities and Canadians. This is a complex, ever-changing dynamic. However, the study does suggest that transparency is a key contributor. 

Transparency and sound management are the top considerations when deciding whether to support a charity for 86% of Canadians. 

The findings also highlight a disconnect. Sixty-two percent wish they knew more about how charities typically operate and yet only 48% think charities operate in an open and transparent manner. 

Again, familiarity comes into play. Those very familiar with charities have more positive views such as the belief that charities are important and have a positive impact. Even those who identify as not familiar have more favourable views. The twist, of those who identify as ‘highly familiar’ are low in their agreement that ‘charities operate in an open and transparent manner’ and ‘most charities are well run and managed’. Not surprisingly, these findings plummet with the ‘not familiar’ group. Clearly there is work to do, yet the rewards are significant.

Charities have rallied around ‘impact’ as the way to engage Canadians with the importance of their work, and rightly so. But as we consider Canadians’ desire for transparency, perhaps the path to trust is clearer.

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Submitted by Ben Ziegler on
Bruce - A great title/question you've framed and explore, here: "Is transparency the new impact?" While your article focuses on the charity-public relationship dynamic, equally important is the internal dynamic in the charity/nonprofit, itself. Organizations which are transparent with their own people, and give them a meaningful voice in their organization, can leverage that to the public-at-large; i.e., managers & staff interacting directly with the public-at-large... expanding public awareness and trust. Assuming the goodness of those people, the more people who are equipped to share and communicate organization values and benefits, the better.

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