Back in the early 2000's, “honesty, integrity, and respect” were the standard buzzwords in ethics discussions. In the intervening decade, “transparency” has joined that list.

Rising alongside a call for transparency is a wave of thought leaders, across all sectors, who are beginning to ask, “Transparency to what end?” Is it simply about regulatory compliance, or making funders and investors happy?

Or could transparency actually be an organization’s path to accomplishing its mission?

For the past two years, Creating the Future, a social change research and development laboratory, has been experimenting to find the answer to that question. In the process, we have learned that when organizations are more open in their work, it can improve both the work itself and the results in the communities they serve.

In December 2012, Creating the Future’s board voted to open all its board and strategy meetings (including meetings for branding, resource development, and programming) to anyone who wished to attend and participate.

Since our organization is global, we hold our meetings via Google Hangout, and community members participate via a dedicated Twitter hashtag. Everyone is encouraged to participate—through asking questions and sharing observations—as if they are board members, whether or not they are.

This online openness mirrors the kind of inclusive, participatory culture that many grassroots neighborhood groups have fostered in the “real world” for decades. As we’ve studied those groups and experienced open engagement for ourselves, here are some of the things we’ve learned that can apply to any organization, whether they are working at a distance or in person.

What Being Open Makes Possible

1.  Being open adds new thinking to the mix. We can’t overstate this obvious practical benefit for every strategic issue an organization considers. During a recent discussion of employee “paid time off” policies, a participant with no formal relationship to the organization powerfully shifted the board’s conversation and perspectives away from the rigidity of a policy, focusing instead on the values of relationships, outcomes, buy-in, and adaptability. That input helped the board clarify its intent. It ultimately chose to scrap the idea of a certain amount of “paid time off,” in favor of an outcomes-based approach that provides flexibility for both employees and their supervisors.

2. Being open flattens internal communications. Opening all our meetings has led to cross-pollination across every aspect of our organization, providing an ongoing opportunity for sharing information and resources, and for developing everyone’s potential as leaders.

As just one example, Creating the Future’s faculty consistently participates in our board’s education-related discussions, including those on sensitive issues like determining compensation for instructors. The board benefits from their input, and faculty members feel empowered to co-create the organization’s results. While this seems logical, many boards discourage such participation.

3. Being open walks the talk of the engaged communities we want to see. From the moment we opened the doors to our meetings, people have walked in and found meaningful ways to become part of our work. Justin Pollock, for example, went from observing a meeting and participating via Twitter, to registering for our week-long immersion course and becoming a Creating the Future fellow. He is now an active member of our board of directors. Meanwhile, Rebecca Hurd and Debra Beck went from watching as interested parties to volunteering as documentarians for the board. Lisa Humenik began attending meetings that interested her; she is now the editor of Creating the Future’s e-Journal.

It seems so simple: If we want to engage the community, we just need to open the doors and invite people in!

4. Being open creates meaningful inclusion. Board diversity initiatives are intended to ensure that an organization’s decision-making reflects the experience of the community it serves. In reality, though, there can never be enough seats on a board to accomplish inclusion beyond what often feels like tokenism. Creating the Future’s board doesn’t have to worry about representing the community, because our community members represent themselves. And while this is powerful in an online setting, it is even more powerful when on-the-ground community members are part of a community-based organization’s decision-making fabric.

5. Being open creates more inclusive accountability. During a discussion of cash flow for our young organization, one concerned board member wondered aloud whether adhering to our values might be at cross-purposes with our survival. Our community members went wild via Twitter, expressing that it was that very code of values that drew them to the work in the first place. That reminder helped board members remove scarcity and fear from the conversation so that they could base their decision on what would align with our values and help accomplish the mission.

The needs of our community directly impacted that decision—not because of a bylaws requirement for “voting members” but simply because we encouraged community members to actively take part in the conversation.

What to Expect

Open and participatory practices are a departure from the norm for most organizations. Here are some things you can expect if you decide to put a toe into these waters.

1. Being open requires more mindful meeting preparation. To participate meaningfully, people need to feel welcome, prepared, and truly included.

  • Welcoming: To ensure that people feel truly welcome, we balance public meeting announcements with personal invitations. We encourage people to introduce themselves when they arrive. We personally thank them when the meeting is over and personally invite them back.
  • Discussion Preparation: For anyone to contribute meaningfully, they need information and context. We create blog posts and videos introducing every agenda item, and frame both community-focused issues and internal issues to keep the conversation at the strategic versus operational level, using a consent agenda to quickly dispatch perfunctory items. A side benefit of that framing is that it reduces the tendency to micromanage.
  • Meaningful Inclusion: Creating systems that consider all voices is critical for meaningful inclusion. However, the most important systems will ensure that community members’ input actually translates into decision-making. That means addressing questions that boards rarely consider: “How do we make decisions? What do we base those decisions on?” For Creating the Future, that has meant a deep commitment to connecting all decisions to the values that undergird our mission and vision—something anyone in our community can understand and support.

2.  Being open requires that we rethink how we value time. Meetings in the western world value speed and expediency, in part because so many meetings are a waste of time. Worthwhile meetings accomplish what a group would not have accomplished if it did not gather—the kind of strategic, generative conversations any community member can participate in.

Such conversations take time, and the more people we include in the conversation, the longer it can take. In our experience, though, that up-front time investment typically results in smoother—and often faster—implementation. When people engage deeply over time, they buy in with both who they are and what they have; this speeds up and enriches results.

3. Being open changed everything about our organization. When we opened our meetings to the world, the board drafted our “Closed Session Policy,” which declares that our mode of operating will be open unless there is a strong reason for it to be closed. People often suggest that this is brave. After two years, it actually feels just the opposite—the idea of not getting as much input as possible in real time now feels incomplete and vulnerable.

Nancy Iannone, a member of our core operations team, said it best: “In one year, we moved from experimenting with openness to establishing it as our culture: ‘Of course our meetings are open and we invite everyone in to participate. Don’t you?’”