Thursday, June 17, 2010

Accountability and Transparency - More Than Good Intentions

This Tuesday’s Annual Forum proved to be among the most well-attended and lively of the luncheons we’ve hosted in my five years with the Charities Review Council. We were pleased to have such strong interest in this year’s theme: Accountability and Transparency – More than Good Intentions, with keynote speaker, Ken Berger, President and CEO of Charity Navigator. As evidenced by their tagline as a national charity evaluator: “Your Guide to Intelligent Giving” and the Charities Review Council’s: “Resources for Smart Giving”, the similarities in the work of our two organizations promised to set the stage for a jovial lunch conversation.

When Mr. Berger took to the podium, he wasted no time in letting us know that his intent was to get us all thinking. His focus on the importance of nonprofits measuring and sharing their impact was welcome. He also shared some quite different messages than we Minnesotans may be used to hearing. For example, you can see for yourself in Mr. Berger's presentation that he dramatically characterized many of his experiences with nonprofits as “Tales from the Dark Side”, involving people who were "scoundrels" and "thieves".

This portion of Mr. Berger's remarks seemed to cast a dark shadow over the sector, while my experiences getting to know many of the great people who work here leads me to believe most of us are drawn here because we genuinely want to improve our communities.

Mr. Berger described our two organizations as relatives, with our complementary missions and a bit of a generational difference – Charity Navigator is eight years old and the Charities Review Council has been around for over 64 years now. After many years serving in the role as a Minnesota watchdog, we at the Charities Review Council have intentionally chosen to shift our approach over the last several years. We’re striving to build the public’s trust in the charitable sector by focusing more on the many positive stories of the great, often tireless, critical work so many of our nonprofits are doing every day, rather than continuing our prior approach of drawing so much attention to the occasional scandal and misuse of donors’ dollars.

The Charities Review Council does not shy away from providing objective, third party review reports of the charities we review, and we fully acknowledge that there do exist some egregious cases of nonprofit fraud and abuse – but these are largely the exception rather than the rule. We’ve found in the vast majority of cases of nonprofits not at first meeting our Accountability Standards, these shortcomings are unintentional and eagerly remedied.

As the title for this Annual Forum posed, accountability in the nonprofit sector requires more than good intentions. Yes, there are examples of people and organizations that abuse the good-will engendered by being a nonprofit. But that is all the more reason the vast majority of the nonprofits that are out there doing good work need to PROVE they are doing good work. We must be proactive in showing what difference we are making, tracking and proving it with data, and sharing this with the public.

As we heard on Tuesday, both Charity Navigator and the Charities Review Council are pursuing innovative and promising strategies to enhance our review processes to ultimately improve the nonprofit sector.

What has been working well to help your organization demonstrate its impact in our communities? What ideas do you have regarding the role of the Charities Review Council in helping you do this? We look forward to the continued conversation.

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