Radical Transparency Can Save Philanthropy

Trust is often cited as the single most important part of a relationship, and ours is in danger. GlobalGiving’s Eleanor Harrison has five tips for nonprofits that want to build trust in today’s world.


Distrust of nonprofits—for the first time ever—dropped to the same level as distrust in business in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer Annual Global Study. In the US, UK, China, Japan, and Germany, trust in NGOs fell below 50 percent.

What can we do to win it back?

I believe the best solution is radical transparency. Trust in philanthropy could be restored through honesty about the end results of our often-tough choices—through sharing our successes and our failures.

Throughout my career in philanthropy, I’ve experienced heartwarming successes and near-crushing failures. I’ll never forget Ken,* who went from painful destitution to thriving in secondary school, winning a government scholarship, and establishing a career as a computer scientist. It’s inspiring. I’ll never forget Peter* either, a charming teenager who couldn’t beat his drug addiction. I tried multiple times to help him as the director of a nonprofit in Kenya. But I learned in June that Peter had died on the streets—at the age of 15. His tragic death deepened two convictions: One, I’m not ready to give up on philanthropy; and two, it must change.

The public deserves to know what’s working and what’s not in philanthropy, without any filters. Ultimately, radical transparency has the power to save lives. An environment of collaboration, where information is openly shared and everyone is invited to tackle problems until they are solved, could have saved Peter’s life.

Investing in radical transparency is worth it. Here are five steps nonprofits can take toward transparency:

    1. Ask difficult questions.

    For example, what do the people you serve really think of your nonprofit? How do they think you could improve your work? What biases do you bring to your work? There are endless questions you can ask of yourself and your nonprofit. The important thing: ask!

    2. Align your values with your actions.

    Values will become more, not less, important in future philanthropy. What are the core values at your nonprofit? How do you demonstrate those values every day?

    3. Always be open.

    Donors and the people we serve deserve to know how we collect money, how we spend it, how we report on it, and how we learn to spend it better. Be honest about the complexities of making a difference in the world and your nonprofit’s choices; some of which may turn out to be wrong.

    4. Experiment.

    If something isn’t working, be open to new approaches, and invest in systems and processes that allow everyone to be more engaged problem solvers. Imagine if a donor could specify one of your outcomes for their donation, and through blockchain technology, trace its path of impact, all online. Sure, blockchain technology may be a bit futuristic or unattainable for resource-strapped nonprofits, but other solutions are free and easy to implement (e.g., crowdfunding for communities traditionally left out of philanthropy, open book accounting, client exit surveys, and 360 degree performance reviews—for staff and CEOs).

    5. Collaborate.

    It’s common sense! Treating donors, those we serve, our nonprofit peers, and our funders as equal stakeholders and information owners—not as voiceless ATMs, competitors, or victims—will strengthen philanthropy.

If we work together, I know we can transform philanthropy and restore trust in aid through radical transparency. It’s clear: the world has never been more ready for the democratization of philanthropy. Are you?

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*Name changed to protect client’s privacy.

Featured Photo: Prevent Child Trafficking Through Education by The Freedom Story (Formerly The SOLD Project)
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