The Inevitability of Transparency

December 7, 2009

It is a pleasure and honor to join the conversation on this new blog. Some days I’m not sure I consider myself an “intrepid philanthropist,” but every day I consider myself a fan of Ed Skloot, the creator of this blog.
Ed encouraged me to use this space to elaborate on a theme that I’ve been writing about lately: the inevitability of transparency.
Duke’s very own Joel Fleishman—in the world of philanthropy as much of a legend as Mike Krzyzewski is in the world of basketball—wrote in his wonderful book three years ago that foundations’ lack of transparency was our sector’s greatest liability. “The only way for foundations to protect the freedom, creativity, and flexibility they now enjoy,” he argued, “is to open their doors and windows to the world so that all can see what they are doing and how they are doing it.”
At the time, I feared the message would fall on deaf ears in the nonprofit sector because there was no forcing function to drive the kind of change that Joel advocated. The sector does appear more introspective about issues of transparency when we face the threat of Congressional scrutiny. However, Joel’s book came out after several years of scrutiny had just dissipated.
And yet a new force has gathered tremendous steam in just the three years since Joel completed his book. It’s far more powerful and enduring than a Senate committee’s gaze, and it’s affecting public, private, and nonprofit sectors alike. It’s the power of tens of millions of networked citizens with creativity and attitude. In the words of often-quoted Internet guru Clay Shirky, “Here Comes Everybody.”
The transparency revolution is driven primarily by societal factors.
The first factor is anxiety, and we have that in spades. Yes, the recession is starting to ease, but the economy is still incredibly precarious, and unemployment is still way too high. Add to this mix a political system that’s better at producing vitriol than results, renewed fears of an overbearing government, two wars, and terrorist threats, and you see a lot of people “at the top of the cage.”
In this anxious environment, citizens are not giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. They look at every institution—whether it’s multinational corporations, our national government, or a local hospital—through a skeptical lens.
The second factor is new technology. Even as the macro forces in our lives feel out of our control, the Internet and the new generation of networked tools are enabling a shift in power into the hands of average citizens. Thanks to these emerging tools, every day it becomes easier, faster, and cheaper for citizens to:

  • share their reactions and reviews with anyone anywhere, and to aggregate, distill, mash up, and use this feedback in myriad ways;
  • gain the benefit of others’ perspectives on how organizations—and those in them—function and perform;
  • connect, coordinate, and collaborate with those who have shared interests and passions;
  • access raw data and turn it into actionable information.
In the coming days, I will explore the implications of this transparency revolution and offer one citizen’s view of how intrepid nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists can make the most of this moment. I will also take a clear-eyed look at some of the downsides of this transparency revolution, which are just as important for us to understand and address.

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