Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Friday, July 25, 2008

Nonprofit Website Mistakes: Lack of Transparency

When people talk about mistakes nonprofits make with their websites, the first thing that comes to mind is usually either no direct donate button from the front page, or an unclear mission statement. But I'd like to focus on a different type of mistake; lack of transparency.

First off, what do I mean by "transparency?" I'm talking about communicating with your community (clients, members, potential donors, neighbors, elected officials, etc.) as openly, honestly, and fully about your operations as is practical and legal to do so.

And I'm not just talking about your programs and the great deeds that your organization performs. I assume that's already on your website (and if it's not, you need a far more remedial article than this one). I'm talking about your finances, your governance, and your management of the public trust.

Because that's what a nonprofit is: A public trust. You have been granted your 501(c)3 (and your special tax status) to produce something of benefit to the public, and the public is, in many very real ways, the ultimate shareholders of your corporation - even more so than your board members, clients, or staff.

These days the public finds it hard to trust in many institutions (and who can blame them). Lack of trust in nonprofits leads to lack of donations, and restrictions on what we can ultimately accomplish. By being as transparent as possible you inspire trust in your organization, and (hopefully) in the nonprofit sector as a whole. And trust, in turn, inspires donations.

So, how do you make your website "transparent?" Here are a few suggestions to get you started...

Post Your 990s - Your IRS form 990 tax returns are already public information to those who know where to find them (on, for example). But why make people look for them elsewhere? Have your accountant create a pdf file of your 990s and post them annually as soon as you have filed.

Post Your Audits - Show your donors that your finances are in order and have passed a critical inspection. You spend your money responsibly; let your community know.

Post Board Activity - Maybe full board meeting minutes would be a bit too detailed, but why not a monthly summary of board activity and decisions made? A good way to do this is with the next suggestion...

Start Blogging - Show that your efforts at transparency aren't just an annual activity coinciding with your audit and 990s. Make a regular effort to inform your constituents of what is happening behind the scenes in your organization. This could include staff changes, new funding received, even problems with the plumbing (who knows, maybe one of your readers can volunteer a solution!).

Contact Information! - I can't believe the number of nonprofit websites I visit that have a board listing (names only, no affiliations) and a senior staff listing, but then only one general information email address. How about full staff listings with all emails and more some information on your board members. If board members don't all want their emails listed, how about at least the board chair, or maybe a "catch-all" email ( that you can forward to each of them?

These are just a few ideas to get you going, I'm sure you can come up with many more once you start thinking about your organization, and how you communicate with your community.


  1. We have the same issues and problems on this side of the Atlantic.

    Not-for-profits claim to be innovative - they should demonstrate it by using the internet to make themselves open, transparent and accessible.

  2. I'm new to the blog, so perhaps this is your usual M.O., but I just love the fact that instead of saying "you should be transparent," you actually give suggestion on how to do so. Great post.

  3. A great resource for things nonprofts should be doing is located on the charities review council's website:

  4. I have blogged about nonprofit websites myself, and yet I have found great information here that hadn't occurred to me before. Thanks!

  5. I agree completely regarding the lack of transparency but would argue that it applies to more than just non-profits. Unfortunately, many corporations also suffer from such a malady.

    In addition to transparency, I would highlight that many nonprofit sites are not logically planned out using revenue generators as a basis. For instance, if your nonprofit generates most of its revenues from events, then be sure to have the events section prominently displayed. There should be a strategic logical order to the navigation structure of the nonprofit site. As a communication company that represents many nonprofits, I am always surprised to find lack of contact information and event information readily available on Web sites. I also have noted that many nonprofit sites are unclear regarding the works or accomplishments that they achieve. To view an example of a good nonprofit, foundation, please check out
    This is a small foundation with a big, clear message.

    Jennifer Lester, Officer, Philosophy Communication, Inc.

  6. I recently wrote about the basic info that nonprofits should have on their websites, and I can't believe I never thought of these - but you are absolutely right. The more open a nonprofit is about its operations, the more it will receive acceptance and support from the community.

    About the email - I would like to give the benefit of the doubt and think that board members are trying to avoid spam, which is why they won't put their email addresses. No matter how much you try to cloak your email address or whatever spam protection you use, spammers still find a way to get to you. A catch-all email is a great idea too.



  7. I strongly agree with this post. I design websites for nonprofits and I always make sure the mission and the call to action are the main focus!