Bond/NIDOS Transparency Review 2014

Open, honest and active communication between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and our stakeholders about the work we do, the decisions we make and the results we get is crucial. This kind of communication increases our transparency, builds greater accountability with the people we work with and increases the trust of partners and supporters.

The Bond and NIDOS Transparency Review aims to help organisations learn about how open and transparent they are by reviewing their websites against a set of criteria which covers the openness of governance, financial, programme and results information.

Executive summary

Bond and NIDOS (Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland) have been supporting UK-based NGOs to become more transparent for some time. In recent years, Bond’s work on transparency has focused mainly on supporting organisations to share information in a common format, using the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). However, Bond and NIDOS are seeking ways of broadening their support because they recognise that there are many routes to greater transparency.

The Bond/NIDOS Transparency Review aims to help organisations learn about how open and transparent they are about themselves through the lens of the outsider looking in. It does this through examining organisations' websites – a key route for sharing information. NGO websites are primarily aimed at audiences in the global north and at funders or supporters rather than those who the organisation aims to support. However, increasing internet penetration in the global south is increasing the diversity of NGOs' website users. This review aims to help organisations understand their current practice compared to their peers, and to see in practical terms how they could become more open. It is not a comprehensive analysis of all dimensions of an organisation’s transparency practice (for example it does not cover direct communications with "beneficiaries").

In 2014, a pilot cohort of 49 UK-based international NGOs' websites were examined for the review. The cohort was comprised of 15 small NGOs (spending less than 500,000 per annum), 20 medium-sized NGOs (spending 500,000 to 5 million) and 14 large NGOs (spending over 5m). The group included 43 Bond members and 6 NIDOS members.

The review consists of indicators developed from good practice guidelines and similar NGO transparency and accountability reviews in Europe and the US. The indicators covers four areas of practice: transparency policy, organisational information, governance and finance and activities and results. For each indicator, four scoring levels range from weak practice (0), minimum practice (1), good practice (2) and best practice (3). Overall scores have been calculated as a percentage out of a maximum score of 39 points.

The next section highlights the key results from the 2014 cohort.

You can download the full 26-page report.

full report

Results

The total average score across the cohort is 47%. This equates to somewhere between "minimum practice" and "good practice" on the review's scale. The lowest overall score in the cohort is 18% and the highest 77%, which indicates highly diverse practice between organisations. The highest scoring NGOs are Christian Aid, Plan UK and WWF. Publish What You Fund is the highest scoring medium-sized organisation and HealthProm is the highest-scoring small organisation.

Large organisations on average score higher than medium-sized organisations, who in turn score higher on average than small organisations. These differences are statistically significant. Nonetheless, within this average, the best-scoring small organisations score higher than some medium or large organisations. The methodology was designed so that achieving a high score does not require significant resources. This was so as not to disadvantage smaller organisations. However it is important to acknowledge that staff time constraints and competing priorities often make it more difficult for small organisations to achieve a high score on the review.

We also find that organisations who receive DFID funding score higher on average than those who do not. DFID has been a prominent promoter and advocate of transparency in recent years. Furthermore, organisations with strategic, flexible DFID funding (Programme Partnership Arrangements) score higher on average than those with restricted funding from DFID. These differences are also found to be statistically significant.

There are low scores on average on publishing evaluations and results of activities, and on the depth of information provided on organisations’ activities. These indicators are important aspects of transparency because they can facilitate improved accountability, coordination and learning.

High-scoring indicators are mainly in the governance/finance and organisational information sections. These include information on organisations’ mission and values, their funders, the breadth of their activities and their accounts. The lowest scoring section on average is transparency policies.

The review also asks additional questions about organisations' publishing to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Only four organisations score three or more out of five on these questions. This suggests that most organisations comply with the conditions of their DFID grants by publishing to IATI, but do not offer any more information that the minimum required.

Each organisation in the pilot cohort has been given a detailed report of their own results along with tailored recommendations for improvements. This overall review report complements the individual reports by showing average scores per indicator for the cohort. As the Transparency Review is primarily a learning exercise for participating organisations, the report does not name individual agencies’ scores, but does recognise specific examples of good practice. This was at the request of participants and is intended to help organisations to make improvements since for many this is a relatively new area of focus.

Key recommendations for organisations

  • Be more consistent about publishing information about results. Systematically publish evaluations of completed work. It is important that the sector improves communication of its results and has the self-confidence to show that it learns and improves, and sometimes this involves failing.
  • Develop and publish an open information policy with tightly-defined reasons for excluding sensitive information. This can be done relatively quickly and the level of detail scaled to suit the size of the organisation.
  • Share more information on local partners, especially where they are responsible for implementing projects, in order to build transparency and accountability towards those people involved on the ground.
  • Small organisations in particular may wish to prioritise low-cost actions like publishing or linking to existing documentation on activities (e.g. project proposals, evaluations and organisational accounts) and reusing information from their Annual Report and Accounts on their website.
  • Set and track targets for improving the organisation's scores and commit to retaking the Transparency Review
  • Publish at least as much information about senior staff as about trustees.
  • Provide web content for stakeholders in developing countries as a standard part of your target audience e.g. service users, local partners, local and central government.

Key recommendations for Bond and NIDOS

The reviews also highlight some key actions for Bond and NIDOS to support NGOs to improve transparency practice. These include:

  • Share learning across organisations on the advantages of being open about project results and evaluations and the wider benefits of transparency, for example through the Bond network’s Transparency Working Group. Actively encourage discussions around learning from failure.
  • Help NGOs to develop open information policies and to learn from each other, including sharing examples of good practice and developing a template policy.
  • Provide information to small organisations on how to source pro bono or low cost support for website development.
  • Work with donors to share lessons on appropriate ways to promote transparency among their grantees.
  • Support further and broader sharing of information using IATI. Encourage use of IATI data to inform project plans and objectives through sites such as Development Tracker http://devtracker.dfid.gov.uk/.

If you are interested in Bond reviewing your organisation, please see our information page on the Transparency Review.