Anyone who has been following my tweets got to join me on the journey from Jacksonville, FL to Indianapolis, IN yesterday for ARNOVA‘s 2012 annual conference. Unfortunately, this year I was only there for a couple sessions before I flew back this morning, but I do have to say, the two sessions (one of which I presented on) were very informative.
The first session was on Nonprofit Advocacy. Since I am really interested in the work the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida does, I thought this would be a fabulous panel to glean some information from. It did not disappoint. The papers ranged from the Independent Sector‘s recently release report, “Beyond the Cause: The Art and Science of Advocacy” (which prompted some lively discussion, due to the recent rebuttal in Nonprofit Quarterly (originally published on the Website of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy) to Does Government Funding Depolitisize NGOs? (looking at the role of government funding on a nonprofit’s lobbying), and the final paper on Government-Foundation Partnerships in the 21st Century. The discussion that followed was lively and took the remaining time allotted to the panel.
The next panel was on Nonprofit Transparency and Accountability. The first presenter (Kathleen Hale from Auburn University) discussed the development of the term transparency in the nonprofit and government sectors over time, the topic of her paper, “Understanding Transparency: Concept and Practice in the American Nonprofit Sector, to form a basis on which the rest of the paper built. I presented my (University of North Florida) paper, Transparency or Accountability? Nonprofits use of ICTs next, followed by Alicia Schattemen’s (Northern Illinois University) paper on “Financial and Performance Accountability in Community Foundations. Through in-depth interviews, my paper sought to understand how nonprofit leaders conceptualize the use of ICTs (information communication technologies) and how they connect to the organization’s online transparency and accountability. The main finding (other than all nonprofits seeing these mediums as a way to push out information) was that there were four organizations that brought the use of these mediums from the marketing perspective, to an engagement conceptualization: as tools to engage stakeholders. Moreover, two of the four conceptualized social media as tools to not only engage, but to include stakeholders in the governance of the organization: expanding the number of voices at the table to help the organization better plan for the future. In addition, how the leader of the nonprofit conceptualized ICTs correlated with the amount of information available on the organization’s Web site.
While my paper looked at technology, Alicia’s paper analyzed the content available in nonprofit annual reports. Similar to my findings, most of the reports she looked at used the annual report as a marketing tool to attract new donors, and less so to promote transparency. The three papers fit together nicely, which is good considering they and one more were submitted for a journal symposium. =) We received excellent feedback from the audience, many noting how they really enjoyed the material presented.
Transparency and accountability are two topics that are not going away for nonprofits. Indeed, the more practitioners understand how the two concepts are interrelated and how to apply it to their organizations, nonprofit leaders will be in a better position to avoid “stakeholder resistance” (as discussed in Woods Bowman’s article, Nonprofit Accountability and Ethics: rotting from the Head Down, in Nonprofit Quarterly). While the literature is continually evolving on nonprofit transparency and accountability, the empirical research is finding that nonprofits are not being transparent or accountable as the literature suggests they should be, the normative literature is basing many assumptions on understanding that nonprofits are using these tools (ICTs, annual reports, etc.) to be accountable. There is a disconnect, and more studies measuring the change over time, and the variables predicting higher levels of accountability (both online and offline) will be needed to see if the margins between what nonprofits ought to do and are doing begin to narrow. Maybe a panel for ARNOVA 2013….
Here are the slides from my presentation: