Be transparent and clear to avoid the present danger.
There was a time when simply sustaining the important work of the Y in communities across the country would have been enough. However, that time has gone. In an era when study after study shows the public's trust in institutions is eroding, the work and its impact remain essential pieces of the pie. But, nonprofits now need to bring more to the table. And, it starts with transparency.
With lack of trust comes skepticism and the conviction that organizations must prove they are who they say they are. Nonprofits need to assume that donors, partners and the general public expect full transparency. In response, we have to be as open as possible.
It goes without saying that financial transparency is fundamental and vital. Do not force people to jump through hoops to find your Form 990 and audited financials. Post them on your website.
Here's another given: board transparency. Nonprofit boards are charged with protecting the organization's interests, enhancing its reputation and ensuring integrity. To fulfill their governance responsibilities effectively, board members need to have a complete picture of the organization--what's working, what isn't and everything in between. Transparency is a cornerstone of the staff/volunteer partnership.
At the Y, we also place a premium on what I like to call mission transparency. Our national mission is clear and prominent: To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all. But how do we go about accomplishing our mission? How do we measure success? Our key constituents want to know.
As a national resource office, Y-USA's role is to provide resources and counsel to YMCAs that strengthen their capacity to deliver on the Y's mission and our cause of strengthening community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility (which we view as our mission in action). So, Y-USA's practice is to involve local Y staff and volunteers--1,700 of them most recently--in our strategic planning process. We have a purposeful conversation about what the national office should work to accomplish on behalf of YMCAs individually and our organization nationally, and then YUSA develops strategies, goals and measurements accordingly. At the end of each year in the plan term, we issue a status report. We also post our strategic plan on our website, next to our 990 and audited financials.
Lastly, communicate, communicate, communicate. Call it message transparency. Other efforts toward transparency will matter less if people don't know who you are as an organization or what you stand for--if you haven't given them a reason to pay attention in the first place.
About eight years ago, Y-USA conducted extensive research on public perception of the Y What we discovered was bittersweet: People liked us, but they didn't really understand what we do or the impact we make in communities. So, we invested first in revitalizing the Y brand and then in launching the Y's first nationwide, multichannel positioning and fundraising campaign. Even in the era of social media, changing perceptions about an entrenched, 165-year-old organization is not easy, but we are making sure progress.
My hope is that this sort of progress honors the Y's noble history while preparing our organization for a future that is just as consequential.
Kevin Washington is president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) in Chicago, III.