Organizational Transparency: An Introductory Guide for the Perplexed

By ginaschmeling   /     May 12, 2015  /     Jewish Innovation, Nonprofits, Social Media  /     0 Comment

“Openness is the chief virtue of the digital age.”

– Virginia Heffernan, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet”

Transparency itself isn’t a new concept. In the US for example, nonprofits must publicly file 990s annually. This ensures accountability, and is a requisite for tax-exempt status. But transparency does not begin and end with financial information. There are new dimensions, new imperatives emerging from technology, and perhaps most profoundly, transparency is now a critical leadership skill. That feels pretty new to many of us.

But today’s leaders need to understand that transparency is no longer optional.  When the rules of the game have changed, leaders necessarily need to adapt their approaches. What roles does transparency play here? According to Charlene Li, author of Open Leadership“transparency is not defined by you as a leader, but by the people you want to trust you and your organization. How much information do they need in order to follow you, trust you with their money or business?” (pg. 193).  It’s all about trust — and trust (and its corollary, attention) are the currency of our current attention economy.

Understanding that transparency is a critical value and essential element of effective leadership has powerful implications for organizational sustainability too. Previously, organizations literally served an ‘organizing’ function. Institutions held the data, finances and authority. Today, individuals are self-organizing and shifting the power center. Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms decode this in their HBR article “Understanding ‘New Power’”. Simply, “the goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.” As society is increasingly skeptical and rejecting of old structures, transparency becomes even more important. It becomes a way to activate and channel new power.

Some people mistake transparency for cracking open your financials and letting it all hang out. But it isn’t just about opening up your books or making leaders function as if they are naked. Transparency (of any sort) is values-based, centered on respect (hakavod), virtues (middot), and, the big one, truth (emet). Think about your relationships with your spouse, business partners, and good friends.  Yes, there’s the planning — taking kids to soccer, paying the bills, making doctors appointments. But what if you didn’t trust your partner, and had little input in decisions? The logistics would be joyless. Strong relationships are built on respect, honesty and open communication (transparency). So too relationships with our donors, members, volunteers and advocates.

Jed Miller, who helps human rights organizations align mission and digital strategy, says that “Institutions may be afraid that by opening up about internal processes they give critics a map of their weak spots.” He warns that this kind of initial fear is inherently limiting. “The key,” he says, “is to think about your public—however you define them—as participants in your mission, not as targets or threats.”  What kind of insight — into processes, decision making, etc. — is needed for them to trust you as a champion of the cause?

When we, as leaders in the Jewish world, hold ourselves and our leadership apart from the community, how can we expect to engage our communities with full and sanguine spirit?  We cannot hide or disable conversations, or operate in a vacuum and expect the public to consistently trust us with their dollars. Those days are over. Today, we need to embrace these values of open leadership.

Organizational transparency is where Jewish wisdom nests with innovative thought. I’ve spoken to rabbis about salary transparency, and searched Jewish orgs with high ratings on charitable indices. Comparing synagogue websites, I’ve sought open plans, board minutes and budget spreadsheets.  While there are bright spots, the norm is much more closed and opaque. In the Jewish professional community, we tend to compare ourselves to each other to establish a norm, when in fact we need to be widening our gaze to understand the role and importance of transparency in today’s marketplace. My sense is that the Jewish world is not keeping up, or worse, we are not pushing ourselves forward. It is time that we recognize the shifting norms, acknowledge the benefit to our organizations and community as a whole, and take real steps to integrate transparency into our normative business practices.

In a time when many Jewish organizations are seeking to get more people to trust and follow them, we must heed Open Leadership author Charlene Li’s words of wisdom. Transparency is the information people need in order to follow and trust you as a leader, or as an organization. While leaders may be initially resistant to the idea of transparency, we must all take it seriously to build strong, sustainable and vibrant communities.

Stay tuned for future posts on specific examples of how various leaders are putting this ethos into action.

This appears on Darim Online and Connected Congregations as a Guest Blog. My #DarimDebut! Gratitude shout-out to Lisa Colton. 

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Storytelling with Intimacy and Impact, #15NTC

By ginaschmeling   /     Mar 31, 2015  /     Conference Report, Jewish Innovation, Nonprofits, Social Media  /     0 Comment

Stories make us human. They connect us to others.

Over again, that great story punctures social media feeds. If we’re lucky, we hear one at a table over a shared meal.

There is a unique space between intimacy and impact. Both are important, and there are different ways nonprofits can weave them into the question: what’s our story?


This year’s #15NTC in Austin turned the storytelling topsoil. One path with reach and amplification – an impact blueprint, #15NTCMultiStory: Multichannel Storytelling for Social Impact. Another with the intimacy of poetry and history, #15NTCJews: Storytelling from Exodus to Instagram. Both emphasized story-participation, both used technology to get there.

We saw two key roles for technology. First as the storytelling medium, and then as the matchmaker for real life meet-ups. A digital one-two.

#15NTCMultiStory highlighted simple steps to “hatch” stories. Here’s the full Storify. Jereme Bivens, from The Rockefeller Foundation, intro’d the storytelling tool hatchforgood, now in beta. With simple steps, collective learning and analytics, orgs can plug in to Hatch’s resources to build out their stories. Less winging it.

Some pointers were shared from a Hatch blog post by Garth Moore. Highly tweetable, right on the money:  spend 40% of your time creating your story (content), 60% promoting it. Also aim to surpass the engagement “bump” — an activity cluster without endurance. Later, Jereme summed in an email, “content should be able to provide lasting value to an audience over time.”

There was a blend of big, powerful stories and sweet, compelling ones. Megan Anhalt from Purpose, shared this video of The White Helmets. Try to stay dry eyed. And Foundation for Jewish Camp‘s Allison Cohen presented their fresh, cliché-blasting, “One Happy Camper” video.

A session dear to me, #15NTCJews, ported storytelling from the source. Seth Cohen from The Schusterman Foundation led, and we started with a glimpse of torah. Professor Jonathan Kaplan shared the poetic structure of parshat Shir HaYam, carving a moment in time. Poetry was the code embedded within strong stories.

There were tech revelations, too. Jonathan Eisen previewed OneTable, the new site for Shabbat Dinners. Think AirBnB for Friday night. The app beautifully pairs hosts and guests. The stories flow from real life engagement, and diners are encouraged to document on social media and stay connected. Jonathan put it this way, “Stories happen at dinner.”

The “table” as metaphor was vital in Seder2015, Michael Hebb’s project. The dinner table is not neutral, the communal space empowers people to unpack both difficult and joyful topics. His previous work provokes with purpose. Check out deathoverdinner and drugsoverdinner. With Seder2015, the essential Jewish telling of freedom gets a tech update with playlists, anecdotes, recipes, hosting tools, and social good opportunities.

Lisa Colton from Darim and See3 tied it together with the “scaffolding of tradition” as a link to Jewish narrative. These new sites enable real-life tables of content, the handwork of torah is relevant in the age of mobile design. #15NTCJews transcends the hashtag. I find it a wonderful resource for dynamic technology and new voices in Jewish Innovation.

After last year’s NTC, I wrote about social listening. This year, I found the beauty in the story. And some science in how to craft them. Inspired by these sessions, here are ideas for storytelling with heart, strategy and openness:

  1. The internet is timeless. Jereme Bivens suggests mining top RT’s and most shared content for a year-end “top ten” or “best of.” You can bend and shape stories together.
  2. Transparency is co-authored. Meg Anhalt had my favorite one-liner, “transparent goals make nonprofit stories stronger,” and I spoke on transparency and leadership, #15NTCLeadChange. Being open means supporters will “speak in.” You want them in the story. Check out WNYC’s Bored and Brilliant project. Massive participation!
  3. Respect where you come from. The digital world moves fast, your organization has history. 92Y acknowledged their 140 year story in the very first moment of #GivingTuesday, 12:01 December 2, 2014.
  4. The internet brings us together. User experience is unique, communities are strong (literally, Fitbit! Garmin!).  When folks know they matter, they’ll stand with you.

Each story is ongoing. True epics from the Tribe of Jacob to the House of Stark are non-linear. I think nonprofit stories do not have to be defined purely by numbers or need. More vital may be culture and continuity. Find good souls to co-author your story. Intimacy and impact are admirable goals for all of us. The table is wide and welcoming. What will you bring?



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Corral D

By ginaschmeling   /     Nov 04, 2014  /     Family, Nonprofits, Running  /     4 Comments

IMG_5276My designated start in the 2014 Chicago Marathon this October.

Corral placement (sounds equine, I know) is a predictive way to keep large races orderly. Faster in the front, middle in the middle, slower in the back. Thoughtful design embodied by 45,000 people.

The longer the race, the more likely things may not sustain. More miles mean less control. Course conditions and unplanned, uh, stuff play a part.

The day before the race, I got a cold. Many runners are vulnerable to getting sick the days before a race. Lucky for me, it was not too bad. Unlucky for me, it meant a slower run.

In the hours of not sleeping before my race day wake up, I mulled my plan. Physically and mentally. Since July, I had some big goals. Big fundraising for my charity (I did great!), a major Personal Record, and a doable Boston Qualifying time. It was within reach. All I had to do was run smart.

The story changed. Now some hard choices. I could ignore the symptoms, break the rules and take all sorts of nasty stuff on race day. Or I could dial into what was most important. While training, I’d envisioned Lake Michigan. Images of Downtown and Lincoln Park entered my mind as I ran long on NY’s West Side Highway.  I am a fourth generation Chicagoan. This was Home.

This day would be about the city. Not so much my time. With that, I finally fell asleep at 1AM.

Taping CHGO NATIVE to my back, I started with Corral D. Many miles, Kleenex later (let’s say Chris Christie would not have let me into NJ), I finished with the good people from Corrals F and G. Exactly where I needed to be to enjoy the race, take in the city, feel proud. My time goal was still in my heart, if not run by my feet. And a near miracle! My mom was at the finish line to see me get medaled.

I apply my running experience to my work. I adore planning, and admire staff who work in a team. As with ongoing fundraising campaigns and longer “marathon” plans, time and other factors shape outcome. I talk to so many runners about their dreams. And nonprofit leaders about their goals. It is easy to celebrate success. But how do we handle setbacks or midcourse changes?

Here’s what worked for me. I hope some of these are useful for you, too.

  • Be consistent, smartly aggressive, push for measurable goals. Data colors the story, but you are the author.
  • Keep your numbers in a system. Understand and analyze trends. Ask an expert to interpret what’s going on.
  • Agree on the real “real.” Is a number goal supreme? Or community engagement? Personal achievement?
  • Know the difference between giving up and redirecting. Olympian Frank Shorter calls this “reframing.”
  • Own your result. Share it.

Now get back out there for your next big goal.

Mine is the Brooklyn Marathon, this November 16th. Hope to see you in Prospect Park.

Gorgeous Chicago. This is my first neighborhood.

Gorgeous Chicago. This is my first neighborhood.





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