Maintaining Public Integrity for Nonprofit Organizations: It’s All About Trust

There are few things more valuable than trust. While it isn’t something you can hold in your hands, a lack of trust between your nonprofit and the public can have very real, very tangible consequences. Trust is more than just one singular component, too, with several elements coming together to comprise a nonprofit’s public image. After all, several elements coming together to comprise a nonprofit’s public image. After all, nonprofit organizations are trusted with our most selfless (and ultimately, important) causes. Knowing that a nonprofit organization established to help with a specific cause is doing just that–and doing it effectively/honestly–is incredibly important.

It’s because of the work they do that public integrity and overall trust is so important for nonprofit organizations. The money and resources they receive are meant to directly aid children, churches, sick, impoverished, etc. Therefore, it’s vital that nonprofit organizations commit to ethical principles, transparency, and accountability–and to communicate them as well!

The Problem? The Solution.

It’s an unfortunate truth that malpractice and breaches of trust in the recent past have led to a general sense of uneasiness, as far as the public’s relationship with nonprofits is concerned. Some recent studies have show 1 in 3 individuals claim to be “not confident” in nonprofit organizations, and only 1 in 10 Americans believe that money spent by nonprofit organizations is done so honestly and ethically.

Obviously, this is a huge problem–an entity that sustains itself on the trust and donations of the public to do acts of good for the public simply cannot hope to be successful long-term if that trust is lacking. Making matters more difficult is that the actions that cause organizations to lose trust are rarely black or white–in fact, most ethical breaches arise from gray areas. These gray areas–the outer fringes of fraud, conflicts of interest, misallocated resources, a lack of accountability, etc–aren’t any less egregious or any more acceptable in the eyes of the public, however.

In short, the opportunity to avoid these gray areas and any misunderstandings that can arise from a lack of transparency is something to be celebrated! Nonprofit organizations have the chance to directly communicate their values and goals with the public…so it’s vital to take advantage of this opportunity!

Communicate Your Integrity

A lack of transparency and accountability is rapidly becoming an impossibility in the nonprofit world. Information about your nonprofit is constantly in demand–not just from the public and board members, but also from the IRS, Attorney General, donors, other foundations, and more. As previously mentioned, it’s important to remember that the demand for this information isn’t there simply to be punitive or to “uncover” anything negative about your organization…it also gives you the opportunity to advertise what your nonprofit has accomplished and is working to accomplish, as well.

In other words, show off the good you do! Organizations that are doing what they set out to do honestly and earnestly should have nothing to hide, and a lot to gain from the increased transparency. After all, it goes without saying that we ALL like to know the money we donate is being put to good use: being open, accountable, and forthright with your organization’s details reassures the public of this and turns potential donors into actual donors.

How to Effectively Communicate to the Public

Keep in mind some of the basics of communicating: basics that you would apply to your own organizational relationships. Just as it is important to effectively communicate with your colleagues in order to accomplish your organizational goals, it’s vital that the public is clear on what it is you do, how you go about doing it, and why it’s important that this work be completed. The basics to remember are as follows:

  • Inform: Always inform the public promptly. Communicating information at the last minute opens the door to confusion and an overall lack of understanding.
  • Explain: This plays into the idea of transparency; basically, don’t intentionally withhold information from the public and ensure you deliver a thorough explanation right away.
  • Clarify, Clarify, Clarify: Repeat your information. Word it in different ways. Spread it to all possible audiences through all possible channels. An abundance of clarity never hurts–especially in difficult situations.

Prioritize Your Integrity

If you’re going to talk the talk, then you need to walk the walk. It goes without saying that the best way to maintain public integrity is to avoid doing unethical things! It’s one thing for an organization to say they prioritize their ethical code–we’ve (unfortunately) seen too many organizations say just this before doing something decidedly unethical. Kind in mind the 5 elements of your organization that are most public facing, and how to avoid these becoming negative:

  • Your Mission: This one is simple. Do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t do the things you don’t stand for. Once you’ve made a promise about what your organization is, don’t violate or misrepresent this promise. Be clear, be honest.
  • Overall Reputation: This one comes down to how your organization (and your organization members) conduct business! You’ll want to avoid the dreaded label of “incompetent,” to be sure–but you’ll also want to avoid the “unlikeable” label just as much. Accomplish your goals while making sure your interactions are positive!
  • Transparency/Accountability: As we’ve already touched on, don’t withhold information or attempt to disguise things from the public. Warts and all, people deserve the full truth.
  • Performance/Social Impact: Like your reputation but on a macro level, you want your overall performance and impact to be a substantial and positive one. If you make big promises, deliver big results.
  • Contribution Use: This last one is pretty simple: don’t use the donations/resources you receive for anything other than your organizational mission. To do otherwise, no matter the reason, is a huge violation of trust…as well as an example of malpractice, misrepresentation, negligence, etc.

The Importance of Transparency, Accountability, and Trust

Being transparent has no downsides for your organization (or at least, it shouldn’t have). Being honest–about crisis situations, record-breaking turnout for an event, or something as simple as your public records–is always the best course of action for an organization that relies so heavily on trust. A healthy, honest nonprofit will likely never struggle finding supporters of its cause, either. Your organization being transparent, accountable, and compliant provides ideal optics not just to your organization but also your community and cause!