Transparency Versus Trust
More and more we hear about the need to be transparent. In politics, in business, in education and in the nonprofit sphere, “transparency” is the watchword.
We’re told transparency creates trust—trust between our organization and its supporters. For far too long, we’re told, nonprofits have operated in a sort of vague existential “never zone” of “we’re doing good, so you don’t have to worry.”
The fundraising pundits tell us that’s what donors demand, these days. “Be transparent. You need to share everything. Donors want to verify before they give.”
There’s truth in these statements. And there’s equally as much half-truth and outright self-rationalizing, as well. Nonprofits have never been good at quantifying what they do. Now, the demand for “outcomes” and “effectiveness” has developed into an expectation to prove your organization’s worthiness.
Every day, we hear how donors now demand to know everything. That’s "total transparency." The nonprofit watchdog agencies—we know who they are—have even jumped on the bandwagon. Having ridden their pet hobbyhorse of overhead ratios into the ground, they’ve now acquired a new mount: transparency. That’s “transparency” defined as data analysis of the outcomes.
This is well and good, except for one thing. Donors aren’t looking for transparency. They want mutual trust, which results in transparency.
Transparency alone never engenders trust. It merely confirms—and usually reinforces—what your supporters already think of you. Even when data clearly refute a widely held idea, those facts rarely make much of a difference in how something is perceived. Just ask Galileo or Einstein.
The goal is trust.
We want our supporters to trust us. To trust us with their money. That’s because we want more of it to do more good. That’s good as we’ve defined it, usually.
This is where our self-talk trips us up. Yes, donors want to trust their favorite charitable organizations. And yes, money is usually a part of the equation. That’s not where investors—the donors—have their focus, however.
You see donors have their eyes on their values and visions. Not ours. And certainly not our treasured “programs” and “outcomes." This is where it get’s tricky.
Principle 1 of The Eight Principles™ is Donors are the Drivers®. Donors are driving the philanthropic enterprise. They create the momentum. They determine the direction. For the mathematicians out there, donors’ investments, their gifts, are “vectors." They have both force and direction—the donors’ direction.
We want our supporters to trust us. So how do we achieve that?
Think of someone you trust. Do you trust this person because they give you all the statistics and outcomes of their life? Do you trust this person because they’ve handed you their 60-page manifesto or shared their brand of underwear?
Of course not. You trust them because of the relationship you have with them. Your relationship began with a most insignificant event—a friendly “hello” or a kind word. It continued because, each time, there was warmth and sincerity.
Your relationship started with little things. It was only after a good deal of time that you ventured into the significant or weighty. The same is true even before supporters first identify themselves. When they do, they’ve chosen us. Not the other way around.
Let’s be clear. Our investors choose us. We don’t choose them. That’s why grooming your receptionist for courtesy and studied patience, demonstrating the thoughtfulness of "thank you" notes and focusing on the small things is so important.
It’s no surprise when nonprofits treat their donors as cash-dispensing ATMs, yet shower them with data, that the response is—shall we say—underwhelming. And then we wonder why they weren’t more generous?
We gave them everything they wanted. We were totally transparent. Where did we go wrong?
We equated transparency with trust.
Once trust is damaged—or lost—no amount of “transparency” will compensate for or repair it. And just as trust is built slowly in the small things, it can be quickly destroyed through these things. The indifferent response of the person answering the telephone. The careless solicitor. The event coordinator who blithely promises to follow up and is never heard from again. No amount of data will ever make up for these gaffes.
Self-emptying service is the prerequisite for trust. Whether it’s with a friend, a business colleague or even a family member. It’s the requirement to keep trust.
Trust takes time, and is won or lost in the small things—usually in the very small things. Let’s stop kidding ourselves by playing with numbers. Stop using “transparency” as a cheap substitute for lasting relationships with our supporters, built upon mutual trust.
When we do, our donors will thank us. Lives will be transformed. Then everyone will be better off.
Larry believes in the power of relationships and the power of philanthropy to create a better place and transform lives.
Larry is the founder of The Eight Principles. His mission is to give nonprofits and philanthropists alike the opportunity to achieve their shared visions. With more than 25 years of experience in charitable fundraising and philanthropy, Larry knows that financial sustainability and scalability is possible for any nonprofit organization or charitable cause and is dependent on neither size nor resources but instead with the commitment to create a shared vision.
Larry is the author of the award-wining book, "The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising." He is the Association of Fundraising Professionals' 2010 Outstanding Development Executive and has ranked in the Top 15 Fundraising Consultants in the United States by the Wall Street Business Network.
Larry is the creator of the revolutionary online fundraising training platform, The Oracle League.
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