Transparency Case Study: There are Good and Bad Ways Your Organization can be made "Open"

If you have not had the chance, I strongly encourage you to check out a fantastic piece of journalism in this week’s Economist on the state of the Catholic Church in America. It’s a wonderful example of investigative and data driven journalism made possible (sadly) by the recent spat of sexual-abuse and bankruptcy cases. As a result some of the normally secret financial records of the Church have been made public enabling the Economist to reconstruct the secret and opaque general finances of the Catholic church in America. It is a fascinating, and at times disturbing read.

The articles also suggests – I believe – a broader lessons for non-profits, governments and companies. Disclosure and transparency are essential to the effective running of an organization. As you read the piece it is clear that more disclosure would probably have compelled the Church to manage its finances in a more fiscally sound manner. It probably would have also made acts that are, at best negligent, at worst corrupt, difficult to impossible. This is, indeed, why many charities, organizations and public companies must conduct audits and publish the results.

But conforming to legal requirements will not shield you from an angry public. My sense is that many member contribution based organizations – from public companies to clubs to governments, are going to feel enormous pressure from their “contributors” to disclose more about how funds are collected, managed, disbursed and used. In a post financial collapse and post Enron era it’s unclear to me that people trust auditors the way they once did. In addition, as technology makes it easier to track money in real time, contributors are going to want more than just an annual audit. Even if they look at it rarely, they are going to want to know there is a dashboard or system they can look at and understand that shows them where the money goes.

I’m open to being wrong about this – and I’m not suggesting this is a panacea that solves all problems, but I nonetheless suspect that many organizations are going to feel pressure to become more transparent. There will be good ways in which that takes place… and bad ways. The Catholic Church story in the Economist is probably an example of the worst possible way: transparency forced upon an organization through the release of documents in a court case.

For anyone running an non-profit, community group, public agency or government department – this makes the article doubly worth reading. It is a case study in the worst possible scenario for your organization. The kind of disaster you never want to have to deal with.

The problem is, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, is that, at some point in the next 10-20 years, there is a non-trivial risk any organization (including your’s, reader) will face a publicity or legitimacy crisis because of a real or imagined problem. Trust me when I tell you: that moment will not be the moment when it is easiest or desirable from a cost, political and cultural perspective, to make your organization more transaparent. So better for you to think about how you’d like to shift policies, culture and norms to make it more transparent and accountable today, when things are okay, than in the crisis.

Consider again the Catholic Church. There are some fascinating and disturbing facts shared in the story that provide some interesting context. On the fascinating side, I had no idea of the scope and size of the Catholic Church. Consider that, according to the article:

“Almost 100m Americans, a third of the nation, have been baptised into the faith and 74m identify themselves as Catholic.”

and

“there are now over 6,800 Catholic schools (5% of the national total); 630 hospitals (11%) plus a similar number of smaller health facilities; and 244 colleges and universities.”

We are talking about a major non-profit that is providing significant services into numerous communities. It also means that the Catholic church does a lot of things that many other non-profits do. Whatever you are doing, they are probably doing it too.

Now consider some of the terrible financial practices the Church tried/tries to get away with because it thinks no one will be able to see them:

Lying about assets: “In a particularly striking example, the diocese of San Diego listed the value of a whole city block in downtown San Diego at $40,000, the price at which it had been acquired in the 1940s, rather than trying to estimate the current market value, as required. Worse, it altered the forms in which assets had to be listed. The judge in the case, Louise Adler, was so vexed by this and other shenanigans on the part of the diocese that she ordered a special investigation into church finances which was led by Todd Neilson, a former FBI agent and renowned forensic accountant. The diocese ended up settling its sexual-abuse cases for almost $200m.”

Playing fast and loose with finances: “Some dioceses have, in effect, raided priests’ pension funds to cover settlements and other losses. The church regularly collects money in the name of priests’ retirement. But in the dioceses that have gone bust lawyers and judges confirm that those funds are commingled with other investments, which makes them easily diverted to other uses.”

Misleading contributors about the destination of funds: “Under Cardinal Bernard Law, the archdiocese of Boston contributed nothing to its clergy retirement fund between 1986 and 2002, despite receiving an estimated $70m-90m in Easter and Christmas offerings that many parishioners believed would benefit retired priests.”

Using Public Subsidies to Indirectly Fund Unpopular Activities: “Muni bonds are generally tax-free for investors, so the cost of borrowing is lower than it would be for a taxable investment. In other words, the church enjoys a subsidy more commonly associated with local governments and public-sector projects. If the church has issued more debt in part to meet the financial strains caused by the scandals, then the American taxpayer has indirectly helped mitigate the church’s losses from its settlements. Taxpayers may end up on the hook for other costs, too. For example, settlement of the hundreds of possible abuse cases in New York might cause the closure of Catholic schools across the city.”

Of course all of this pales in comparison to the most disturbing part of the article: in several jurisdictions, the church is spending money to lobby governments to no extend the statute of limitations around sexual-abuse cases. This is so that it, and its priests, cannot be charged by authorities diminishing the likelihood that they get sued. The prospect that an organization that is supposed to both model the highest ideals of behaviour as well as protect the most marginalized is trying to limit the statues on such a heinous crime is so profoundly disgusting it is hard to put words to it. The Economist gives it a shot:

Various sources say that Cardinal Dolan and other New York bishops are spending a substantial amount—estimates range from $100,000 a year to well over $1m—on lobbying the state assembly to keep the current statute of limitations in place. His office will not comment on these estimates. This is in addition to the soft lobbying of lawmakers by those with pulpits at their disposal. The USCCB, the highest Catholic body in America, also lobbies the federal government on the issue. In April the California Catholic Conference, an organisation that brings the state’s bishops together, sent a letter to California’s Assembly opposing a bill that would extend the statute and require more rigorous background checks on church workers.

This disgusting discover aside, most organizations are probably not going to have the same profound problems found in the Catholic Church. But in almost every organization, no matter the controls, some form of mismanagement is probably taking place. The question is, will you already have in place policies and a culture that support transparency and disclosure before the problem is discovered – or will the crises become the moment where you have to try to implement them, probably under less than ideal circumstances?

As they said after Watergate “It’s not the Crime that kills you, but the cover up,” good transparency and disclosure can’t stop the crime, but it might help prevent them. Moreover, it can also make the cover up harder and, potentially, make it easier to ease the concerns of contributors and rebuilt trust. One could imagine that if the Church had been more transparent about its finances it might have better protected itself against bankruptcy from some of these cases. More importantly, it’s transparency might have make it easier to rebuilt trust, whereas any chance now will just seem like a reaction to the crises, not a genuine desire to operate differently.

Again, I think the pressure on many orgs to be more transparent is going to grow. And managers should recognize there are good and bad conditions under which such transparency can take place. Read this Economist story. In addition to be fascinating, it is a great case study in the worst case scenario for opaque institutions.

One thought on “Transparency Case Study: There are Good and Bad Ways Your Organization can be made "Open"

  1. Carlos Silva

    crazy stuff there David. Thanks for sharing. As someone who attended Catholic school from k-12, this is fascinating read. Disappointing, but hey, that’s par for the course these days. 

    Reply

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