Quick — what’s your reaction when someone asks to see your station’s public file? A smile or a wince? And why does it matter? Read on.In November the New York Times published a series on nonprofit accountability, once again parading before the public the missteps of the American Red Cross post-9/11 and the malfeasance of various United Way agency executives. You could imagine nonprofit leaders across the country in a collective cringe. They know that the misdeeds of a few hurt everyone.
Paul Light of the Brookings Institution reports that the public’s trust in nonprofits fell after 9/11 and hasn’t recovered. As Light says in a Times article, there has been a “steady drip, drip, drip of news stories raising questions about many aspects of nonprofit accountability.”
Fallout from corporate scandals has only added fuel to the accountability fire. The predictable result is a push for increased scrutiny and regulation that won’t stop at the borders of for-profit land. Just ask the nonprofits in New York, where state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has turned up the heat under charitable fundraising practices and foundation payout rates.
Why should public broadcasting care? Because, as GuideStar Chief Executive Officer Bob Ottenhoff reminds us, “The days of assumed virtue are over. Public broadcasting is part of the nonprofit sector and unless we all make a concerted effort to support transparency and accountability, we will be increasingly misunderstood and mistrusted” [Current commentary by Ottenhoff]. James Canales, Irvine Foundation c.e.o. and KQED Board chair, concurred, stating at a recent conference that “the nonprofit sector will have to allocate resources to meet a higher level of accountability.”
Nonprofits are responding. Independent Sector, an association representing more than 700 nonprofits, circulated a draft code of ethics. In conjunction with BoardSource (formerly the National Center for Nonprofit Boards), the association has published a paper outlining the implications of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for the sector — implications that go beyond the two provisions that apply to all corporate entities. The United Way adopted upgraded accountability and financial standards earlier this year. Other organizations are following suit and so should public broadcasting.
Accountability as opportunity
How to increase your station’s transparency and build trust with your community? First, take advantage of required filings. Treat them as key communications tools deserving of top-level attention, not just government paperwork to be delegated down the chain of command.
At a minimum, make sure your public file is complete and up to date. Make it available in an accessible form and place. When someone asks to see it, hand it over with a big smile and offer to answer any questions. You might make a new friend for your station.
Pay real attention to the IRS Form 990s. They represent an opportunity to show the world you are proud of your organization, including the fact that you have talented staff and that you actually pay them reasonably well. Too many stations list only the general manager in Part V of the form, the dreaded section asking for names and salary information for officers, directors, and key employees. (New York’s WNET is a notable exception, listing its entire senior staff). Remember that funders and potential employees use these forms to check out your station. Are you a going concern worthy of investment? An attractive employer?
The same applies to whatever filing your state government requires. Familiarize yourself with your state attorney general’s office. What is the AG’s agenda and stance towards the nonprofit community? Be responsive to the office’s priorities.
Finally, check out GuideStar, the online database serving the information needs of funders and nonprofits. Ottenhoff, who was a public broadcaster for decades, says the nonprofit organizations that “get it” are taking advantage of the opportunity the site provides to tell their story beyond the numbers posted in the Form 990. This works to your benefit whether the news you report is good or needs a little explaining. Good examples of organizations taking advantage of this free promotional opportunity include KCPT in Kansas City and Make a Wish Foundation.
Accountability as declaration
Check with your state’s nonprofit association (and join, while you’re at it). The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits publishes a Statement of Practices and Principles and the Maryland Association of Nonprofits has developed Standards of Excellence. You can publicly subscribe to these kinds of standards and link to them from your website. More importantly, make them a real part of your organization.
Accountability as community access
Expand the amount of information you publish on your website. Make it ridiculously easy to find information about your organization.
- Go beyond your mission statement to include your key goals or highlights from your strategic plan.
- Describe how you evaluate your station’s impact on the community and how you measure progress towards community-based (not station-centric) goals.
- Provide links to your most recent annual report, Form 990 and public file report.
- List your board members and upcoming board meetings.
- List your staff, their phone numbers and e-mail addresses. (Some stations still appear to discourage public contact by making these impossible to find on their sites.)
- List your larger donors, giving funding ranges.
- Publish your policy on use of your membership list. Show your members you respect their privacy by making name sharing an opt-in choice rather than the default setting.
- Promote the fact that you subscribe to the standards of performance developed by your state nonprofit association (see above).
None of these steps toward transparency will cost you anything out of pocket. It’s simply a matter of deciding it’s important, making it a priority and seeing it through. Then, when someone asks for your public file, you can relax and smile.