Lessons in Transparency

Sky through Stained GlassLast year, as we planned to incorporate the Community-Driven Institute as its own tax exempt organization, we considered all the steps new organizations take in the beginning – build a board, apply for tax exempt status, build sustainability (financial and otherwise), and a whole line-up of tasks beyond that.
As we began that planning, the same question arose at every turn:
If every bit of that infrastructure-building work were done in alignment with The Pollyanna Principles, what would that look like?
If we are truly holding ourselves accountable to the community (the world) we serve, and we are truly walking the talk of our values, what would it look like if we engage our community’s wisdom in deciding these organizational matters?
The answer – and our course of action – became clear.  We would transparently engage discussion about all major decisions, modeling what it looks like to move those decisions from “behind closed doors” to “out in the open.”
Every major decision? Yes, every major decision.
Even our plans for generating revenue? Even our plans for how to build our board?
Yes. All major decisions.
The question we teach our classes to ask in such a situation is, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And we found we couldn’t answer that question with anything that had to do with our vision, our values or our mission.
(The only answer we did come up with made it clear that the worst that could happen would be all about us personally… we might fail. We might look foolish. The best that could happen, though, would be all about what was possible for organizations and communities around the world. The decision made itself.)
Our First Case Study
We faced our first decision in Line 1 of the incorporation documents: Name of Organization.
Those of you who have been following this story know how that turned out. For those who are new to this tale, a brief synopsis.
We began the discussion here at the blog in January, asking, “What questions should we be asking as we take this exciting step?” Over the months, we shared the transcripts of our internal conversations, as well as our actual whiteboard scribblings, as we explored choices of words and phrases.
Assembling all 50+ comments from those posts (not to mention discussions at Facebook and Twitter and various listservs), the organization’s name became evident: Creating the Future.
The next question we brought to the blog had to do with securing that name as a web address, as we found the names CreatingTheFuture.org and .com were already taken, with the sellers asking several thousand dollars for each name. And so we asked, “Should we raise the money to buy those domain names?”
That last question alone garnered 50 comments on all sides of the issue, with the overwhelming sentiment being that yes, we should raise the money and buy the names.
On July 14, the process that had begun in January was complete.  We had found a great name. We had raised over $5,000 to purchase the domain names. And at 11:30 that evening, the URLs CreatingTheFuture.org and CreatingTheFuture.com officially pointed to our website.
The most exciting part for us, though, was that we had proven that at least in this one instance, such decisions could be made openly, engaging everyone and anyone who cared to chime in.
We know this is the first of many decisions we will make by transparently engaging conversation. For now, though, we want to reflect on what we’ve learned, to compile that all into a white paper or article that others can learn from as well.
As we do that, we come back to you. Whether you were part of this conversation all along, or you are newly reading the posts and observing after the fact:
• What stood out for you? What occurred to you as we went along?
• What questions arose for you? What “aha’s”?
• What did you learn as you watched the tale unfold?
• If you put yourself in our shoes, what might occur to you / stand out for you? What might you notice?
As the white paper writing continues, I promise to share our own “aha’s” here. For now, please tell us what jumps out at you?

12 Responses to Lessons in Transparency

  1. What occurred to me is, you build the organization the vocal part of your tribe says it wants. Also, you channel funds into activities the well-enough-off part of your tribe is willing to vote for with their money. Kudos. Looking forward.

  2. What jumped out for me was that even though the right name might have been obvious to you or others long ago, you encouraged the discussions to continue. We all learned from them about the associations people make with words others might think innocuous. And we learned more about what questions were helpful and what questions were less helpful.

    Following that conversation would help anyone who ever needed to name or rename an organization, so you gave us a gift.

  3. CoCreatr:
    Thank you for this. It is a perspective we hadn’t considered, especially being as this first test of working openly did indeed have to do with funding.

    The interesting thing for us was the number of people who donated $3 or $5. Who gave what they had, telling us they had very little but wanted us to know we had their support. And who gave quietly – people who had not been part of the discussion, people we had never heard of or from before!

    So those are more observations. And given that we only have this one example so far, I have no idea what we may learn from these observations as we add other thinking and experience over time.

    So thank you. Great perceptions!

  4. What first jumped out at me with all of this process, Hildy, is the strength of your convictions. My own experiences in inviting people (including myself!) to even consider the place of functioning that you are at, have been that most people get pretty weak-kneed if a process even begins to hint of “losing control”. And that’s how functioning from this level of transparency can be seen.

    What continues to excite and engage me, though – is *your* level of continuing engagement, and continual invitations of engagement to those of us “out here,” observing & learning and contextualizing your process.

    And for all who share their perspectives — it expands the vision, continually. What a process for us all!

    Thank you~~

  5. Jane:
    The interesting thing was the extent to which we did not know what the name was until it hit us between the eyes. We had played with that name in the past – long before starting this open process – ans we had put it aside, which was perhaps one reason we were so surprised when it was precisely the name that made sense.

    I love your emphasis on the questions – there is such a path of learning just there! Finding which questions are effective, which need further clarification, which are total dead ends – that is so much a part of this work.

    So thank you for raising such an important issue. I had not even thought about the power of questions as I started to list out my own learnings.

    Man it is fun seeing how people all observe the same phenomena with different eyes. I’m smiling that there is even new learning about the very process of collecting learnings!

  6. Elizabeth:
    I’m smiling at your comment – smiling because we all like to delude ourselves that we have any control over anything!

    What your note is sparking for me is the value of a champion for the engagement process itself – not for any particular outcome, but a confidence in trusting the process and the people in the room. (Ok, in this case, it is a mighty large room!).

    The interesting thing we have found in the work we do is that when we trust that the process will bring out the best in people, it not only encourages the participants, but inspires the facilitator as well. You know the next question may bring out someone’s incredible wisdom, and so it encourages you to keep asking!

    So thank you for focusing me on that. I am so enjoying seeing the different things that stand out for folks, from so many different angles!

  7. I think you are exactly correct in theory – unfortunately, non-profits often deal with the government (which generally lacks transparency), therefore it is challenging to deliver true transparency from a practicality standpoint. Of course, I say, do it anyway.

  8. There are a few aspects to transparent processes that always strike me: (1) The surprises (usually positive in the long run but often disconcerting in the short term) that come from the ‘room’. Eventually it’s wisdom, but it doesn’t always feel that way going through the process and (2) The challenges of facilitating such a process and how hard it is to do well. Many years ago I had a very wise mentor who counseled me to ‘trust the process’ although it might mean biting your tongue a lot! (She founded http://americaspeaks.org/ by the way, so she really understands the ‘wisdom of the room’!)

    Creating the Future’s (CTF) process benefits from two wise and committed people (you, Hildy and Dimitri, of course) who recognize how hard a transparent process actually is (no matter how easy a skilled facilitator may make it look) but how important they are to the sector and our collective learning. If one looks closely at the various ‘streams’ of conversation surrounding CTF’s name, domain, etc…one will see how those facilitation skills come through. We all have immediate reactions to different suggestions (felt the more strongly when we are vested in particular outcomes). It takes a certain outlook (and set of skills) to resist the impulse to share one’s first reactions, consider all suggestions and know how to (gently) guide the conversation in positive directions. As you know, I believe strongly that the group journey is often as important as the outcome! Hope these brief thoughts are somewhat helpful and CTF continues its exciting and transparent journey.

  9. I echo Bonnie’s comments! Two things I noticed through the transparent conversations to date are:

    1. Hildy’s ability to pull out the meaningful threads and know exactly what to ask to follow-up (read: awesome facilitation skills)
    2. This process brings you closer to your stakeholders and develops incredible buy-in.

    Inclusionary decision-making is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen an organization and bring stakeholders closer. However, not many organizations really do this. I note that as a former community organizer – the organizations I used to work for sometimes did not want me including stakeholders in the decisions even though that was my mandate.

    If I were to put myself in your shoes, I would say that “behind the scenes” is a lot of unrecognized work. It takes a lot of effort to make sure that all the people that care about the organization know about the process and are encouraged to participate. It took a lot of work and patience to watch the process without influencing it. I know it also takes just as much work to publicize the decisions. However, without all of that work, I’m guessing you would not have had as much input, and like every great organizing campaign, it paid off in spades.

    I’m curious: has this process brought new stakeholders (new blood, so to speak) into Creating the Future and extended its reach?

  10. Thank you for this. I started a non-profit organization basically based off of my blog and social media networks. My daughter died and people rallied to her side and I noticed brought much needed attention to the condition that killed her. Almost naturally, I decided to start an organization. Having blogged and shared along the way, it felt so organic to go to the people I’d come to know and respect through her blog and find myself clowdsourcing for similar questions like the ones you posted for your organization. I don’t have a non-profit background so feel isolated. Will be following (and hopefully helping) your efforts!

  11. Bonnie and Debra:
    First, thank you. A lot. Second, given your comments about facilitation, are there take-aways and lessons for people who don’t teach facilitation as part of their very being?

    We are so anxious to use this demonstration project – and this way of being as an organization – as a model of what is possible. What would you recommend about facilitation of the process, to a group that wants to make their decisions this openly?

    I am convinced, as my friend Bonnie Koenig 🙂 has so often told me, that we can break this down and teach this. So what do you guys see?