Bringing greater transparency to nonprofits

Marketplace Staff Dec 8, 2010

Bringing greater transparency to nonprofits

Marketplace Staff Dec 8, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: We’re going to pick up our philanthropy series today with an interesting idea. Letting it all hang out, organizationally speaking. Radical transparency. The nonprofit group Water for People works to provide safe drinking water and sanitation all over the world. A couple years ago, they put in a new system to track their projects, how things are working out in real time, right there for everybody to see on the web.

Ned Breslin is the CEO of Water for People. Ned, good to have you with us.

Ned Breslin: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Ryssdal: Describe this transparency system you put in place, would you?

Breslin: We developed a system called FLOW. It stands for “Field Level Operation Watch.” And you go in the field, GPS a water point, take a picture of it or you can take a video. You answer a series of questions on whether water’s flowing, whether the quantity of water is sufficient for the people who are using it, whether the quality meets certain standards. And what it does is it takes out information, it loads it up onto Google Earth or Google Maps and you basically can see the results of water and sanitation interventions around the world.

Ryssdal: Or just to be clear here, whether they were flops. I mean, this tracks failures as much as it does success.

Breslin: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that’s the real power of it, is that the water sector, in general, and the development sector often tells you that we’ve taken your money and we’ve done a good thing and everything is fine. But if you go overseas, a lot of broken water points, you see a lot of wasted investments. And this will highlight it and bring to light both successes and failures, so that we can address failures. And I think the donor world and the philanthropic world is quite interested in more openness and more transparency.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you a question though about those donors. If they can see that some of these projects you’re working on aren’t working, do you worry about them not funding you because of this transparency?

Breslin: I actually am finding the opposite. I think that the nonprofit world generally makes statements like “donors don’t want to know” or “we can’t tell donors, because we’ll lose funding.” I think when you have a dialogue with them that basically says, “Look, this is what we’re trying to do,” you get to a different level of discussion with them. And what we often find is that the things that we don’t do well, donors can often come in and say, “Have you thought about this?” or “have you linked with this particular organization” or “how can we help you improve on that?” So we get better quality results through more honest and transparency than we do by just telling a good story and letting people think that, you know, everything’s fine.

Ryssdal: When you first brought this idea to your staff, did everybody jump up and say, “Oh man! Awesome idea!” Was it universally adopted?

Breslin: No. Not at all. I think it’s a real challenge for some people. And Water for People’s gone through a bit of a staff transformation over time. So we’ve had some staff leave, quite honestly, and we brought in, what I think, a very rich and dynamic group of people who actually embrace and are quite inspired by this. And frankly, we’re a much more interesting organization as a result. But yes, there was pushback.

Ryssdal: It’s not just donors though, who can see this, right? Water for People’s not the only water agency out there. Is there a competitiveness aspect to this, because you are competing — I would suppose — for the same donor and grant and foundation dollars with other groups.

Breslin: I see FLOW as a way for the sector to coordinate better, and that if all organizations are putting information online and showing the results of their work over time, then it actually empowers nonprofits to start working together. And that’s really what we need.

Ryssdal: Ned Breslin, he’s the CEO of the nonprofit group Water for People. Ned, thanks a lot.

Breslin: Thank you.

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