I’ve lived in my house for eleven years and about a month ago, I dread to confess, for the first time since buying the two-story home, I had my windows cleaned from the outside. As a result, the contents of the upstairs rooms are dramatically more visible in new ways. I am finding papers I thought lost in piles in my office, old books that I forgot I owned stashed behind bits of furniture in the bonus room, and dust where no one dares to tread in my daughter’s teenage room (she’s now 28.) There must be a life lesson here.
It came full circle when I attended a beginners’ class on digital photography this week. The instructor compared photography to making a cake: in cake-making, there are multiple ingredients and utensils but in photography, there is only one ingredient, he told us. Do you know what it is? Light.
Light exposes what has been lost and forgotten and probably was considered unimportant in the past. But we need plenty of it within our nonprofit organizations. Although the public expects industry leaders to be honest and forthcoming, they demand more transparency from nonprofits, and for good reason. Our organizations are operating tax-free for the public good. Citizens allow us to serve our communities by caring for, feeding, healing, educating, enlightening and inspiring them. They give us certain privileges in return. Our obligations include not only providing impactful and life-changing services but doing so in a very visible way.
I recently watched an interview with two nonprofit leaders in which they discussed what major investors want to know before making charitable gifts to nonprofits. The leaders, one a nonprofit CEO and the other the head of a foundation, listed several items including the usual: 990s, annual budgets, sources of revenue and uses of funds, names of board members and other fairly standard information. But they also recommended high net worth donors ask a potential recipient of a major gift whether the nonprofit had a strategic plan and how recently it had been updated. Other items we might consider disclosing include CEO salary, any conflicts of interest on the board, most recent audit, feedback from the public, staffing and volunteer job descriptions and other operating practices. Does the idea of disclosing any of this make you uncomfortable? Potential board members and donors are increasingly sophisticated. We need to be ready to answer all their questions truthfully because the trend toward greater competition for the time and resources of potential leaders and donors is not going to change.
Our websites are a wonderful tool for communicating with people interested in learning more. Is your list of board members available on your website, your most recent 990 or audit? What about a strategic plan? Maybe it’s time to be more forthcoming about what we share.
So, as we settle back into our demanding routines after the holidays, let us reprise that old song from the then-groundbreaking musical Hair. Let the sun shine in.
Let me know what your board members and donors are asking for and continue the conversation.