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Big Oops: What Not to Send a Reporter and Why Nonprofit Transparency Matters

By on Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Imagine you are the well-compensated (I can hear my nonprofit readers chuckling now) executive director of a taxpayer-funded nonprofit agency that oversees a 15 acre public park. A newspaper reporter emails you and requests to know your salary. Instead of responding before the reporter’s deadline, you email a public relations adviser and ask for advice on how to duck the question. But instead of sending the email to your adviser, you accidentally send it to the reporter.

Big Oops.

You can imagine the hubbub that ensued when Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy did those very things recently. When questioned by a reporter about her salary (a very reasonable request given that about half of the nonprofit organization’s $4.7 million annual budget comes from state transportation funds – aka taxpayer dollars), she wrote an e-mail to her PR advisor, saying:

“What do you think about: 1. My writing her with the FY12 salary of 185,000 as of July 1,” Brennan wrote, noting that the documents now publicly available date only to 2010. Those documents show her base salary at $162,000. Brennan suggested: “a. Ignore; b. Write her now; c. Respond after deadline later tonight.”

Thanks to the hubbub – she did eventually have to reveal her annual salary and what her staff earns – with five staff members in all earning six-figure salaries. Her actions also sparked an editorial by the Boston Globe saying the executive director’s actions to hide her salary from a reporter “threw a shadow on the agency” and led to calls from state officials for greater transparency (read the state transportation secretary’s letter).

She also landed a story in Nonprofit Quarterly, as well as numerous stories from the Boston Herald and other news agencies, not to mention tapdancing from her board. One of those stories goes way beyond salaries and raises serious questions about how the conservancy is managing the public park it is in charge of and how it operates. The Boston Herald reported:

The conservancy, which originally was formed to maintain the Greenway without public funding, has received more than $15 million in state funds since 2005, including more than $2.5 million for last year’s $4.7 million budget.

The Greenway’s maintenance costs ran to more than $300,000 per acre last year. By contrast, it costs about $50,300 per acre to maintain New York City’s Central Park, which also is run by a conservancy.

The conservancy spent more on fund-raising — $584,000 — than the $554,000 the group took in through cash donations and fund-raisers in fiscal 2010.

Wow. It’s not hard to guess where this train is headed. What could have been a story about inflated salaries is now a broader discussion about how the organization is managed. Serious questions have been raised about its operations and how it is spending money, especially if the organization is spending more money on fundraisinge events than it is raising.

What can nonprofit organizations learn from all of this?

If you work in the interest of the public, you should be able to answer the public’s questions. Transparency matters, especially in the nonprofit sector, and even more so when it involves state funds. If you are accepting public funds, you should expect to be held to a greater level of accountability. Public funds, by default, carry public trust. Any engagement in subterfuge with how those funds are expended is a violation of the public’s trust.

If you feel you need to hide something from a reporter, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Yes, nonprofits have lots of reasonable reasons to safeguard information, esp. if they work with at-risk or vulnerable populations. But if you are acting to hide information about how your nonprofit operates and the request is reasonable, you are doing something wrong. It is very reasonable to expect that a reporter might ask how much money staff are paid, when a charity is accepting public funds. Be ready to answer the question, not dodge it.

You should be able to explain clearly why you are doing, what you are doing, and how it helps people. Nonprofit organizations ask the public to trust them to do good works that improve humanity and make life better. But good intentions are not enough to justify poor management, bloated salaries, cost over-runs, bad decision-making and subterfuge. If you can’t be reasonably transparent about your dealings and what your nonprofit organization is doing – you shouldn’t be engaged in nonprofit work.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your project, review our portfolio, sign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven

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