Transparency is a relatively new trend in the international development world. Today it affects all levels of donors and many NGOs as well. This article will explain the basics of what transparency is and how it affects NGOs.
Open and honest
Transparency is the characteristic of being easy to see through. In the context of international development, transparency typically means being open and honest. This can apply to donor goals and objectives, staff diversity, application process, contact information, and much more. However, the call for being open and honest is usually about grants.
Currently, there is no set idea or criteria of what a truly transparent organization looks like. One donor may define “transparent” as merely publishing their address. Another may build a searchable database of every grant ever awarded. Still, the growing awareness and shift towards transparency is broadly considered a positive trend in international development circles.
Today, ‘transparency’ and ‘data’ are often used together. Data transparency usually entails making spreadsheets with raw data freely available. This can be on past grants, the grantmaking process, internal expenditures, staff salaries, M&E results, etc. Other donors, data scientists, researchers, and civil society at large can then take this information and process it themselves. This information can inform research on the sector as a whole, spot changes and trends over time, offer greater insights to how donors work, etc.
There are many organizations in the world working to promote transparency and share data. Here are just a few such examples:
- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publishes data from governmental and multilateral aid agencies around the world.
- International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) receives data on grants from some 700 donors and NGOs around the world.
- 360 Giving collects grant data from over 70 UK-based donors.
Originally, calls for transparency were for governments to show citizens how their tax money was spent. The purpose was to improve accountability, build trust, and prevent corruption. This is still a primary reason for increased government transparency.
However, these policies also help both NGOs and donors in the grant cycle. With more information available, NGOs are better equipped to research and submit higher-quality grant applications. They can more quickly find the right donors and submit tailor-made applications. This saves NGOs from guessing what the donor wants and also helps donors receive more proposals they will be interested in.
Unfortunately being so open can also put organizations at risk. No organization is perfect, and so increased transparency may publicize flaws. While being open and honest about flaws can help bring more solutions to the table, there are still reputational risks involved.
Additionally, the cost of being transparent can also be quite high. Publishing grants data alone can require more staff to properly record and organize the data, website upgrades, custom coding, etc. All of this could shrink a donor’s grant budget.
Furthermore, when donors need to be transparent their grantees must be as well. Since donors collect all their grant data from their grantees, grantees increasingly need to report how grants were spent in great detail. They may also need to open up about how their projects are run. This may increase the burden of some NGOs and also raise overhead costs.
While there are some risks with these ideas, calls for greater transparency are only growing. If donors want to work for the public, then they should open their doors to the public.