Transparency – why bother?

Judith Davey, ActionAid

Judith Davey is ActionAid’s director of people, performance & Accountability.

Transparency can be transformational – access to accurate, timely and relevant information can make a world of difference to the lives of the poor and marginalised people. Knowledge is power, and transparency is a stepping to empowerment.

Why then does the debate about transparency focus so much on transparency to donors and supporters?  Of course the public, donors and supporters are important stakeholders, but as charities our primary stakeholders are our beneficiaries. Transparency about what we do and say in the name of our beneficiaries must be at the heart of the debate.

Meaningful transparency

Cartoon of a blob person balancing between 'transparency' and 'reputation' on a seesaw
Some worry about the reputational effects of increasing transparency

We hear sometimes about the so-called ‘transparency trap’. Different commentators appear to mean different things when they talk about this. One of the more interesting interpretations is taking a tick-box approach – doing it because you feel you have too. Or not doing it because you’re worried about your reputation.

Meaningful transparency requires a thoughtful, nuanced understanding of what people want to know and why and it means responding to those needs. Less is more. Transparency does not mean that we have to stuff our communications and websites with technical documents full of acronyms and jargon that evaluate the impact of our work.

Accessible transparency

Cartoon of a blob person confounded by piles of documents
We have to find accessible ways of enhancing transparency

We need to find other more succinct, audience-appropriate ways to convey the richness and impact of our work. Digital can help us do this in visceral and powerful ways. Find out more from our 2014 Transparency Report.

As an example, ActionAid linked up our UK supporters with women in Bangladesh who were survivors of acid attacks – a particularly brutal form of violence against women and girls. Through social media they were able to exchange messages and our supporters expressed solidarity and support. Both supporters and beneficiaries found it emotional, engaging and uplifting. I doubt there could be a better way of getting across the impact of our work.

Join the debate

I’m delighted to be chairing the panel on The Transparent Organisation at NCVO’s Evolve conference. Of course, no organisation is perfect, and ActionAid is on its own journey to improve our policies and practice. I’m looking forward to the debate which I’m sure will give me further ideas on how to improve. The speakers are excellent – Karl Wilding, NCVO Director of Public Policy and Caron Bradshaw, CEO of Charity Finance Group.

Come along and join the debate – sparks could fly

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3 Responses to Transparency – why bother?

  1. Stefania Antoniadou says:

    In my opinion, the debate about transparency focuses on transparency to donors and supporters mainly due to the problematic history of certain organisations. Also, due to the intangibility of the product of donations, supporters need some hard facts in lieu. As a result, all information ought be available to the public, to ensure that organisations think twice re: their activities, and to avoid excluding support from the more suspicious . There is, however, definitely no reason for bombarding all supporters with so much information, unless they specifically ask for it.

    Nevertheless, another problem that arises with “too much transparency” is that it often limits organisations’ effectiveness, due to the occasional inability of the public to comprehend the prerequisites for “getting the job done”. I suspect that bringing together supporters and beneficiaries will greatly aid in educating the public about the realities of the communities they are trying to help, eventually putting an end to the transparency dilemma.

  2. albert davies says:

    Thought provoking and insightful blog post

  3. Judith Davey says:

    Interesting comments Stefania – thanks. Yes, I agree that the public doesn’t always understand how charities work or what’s required to deliver impact for beneficiaries. Have you heard about the Understanding Charities Group?

    http://www.charitycomms.org.uk/articles/director-s-update-improving-the-public-s-understanding-of-charities

    Best wishes