Legitimacy: Radical Transparency and Constituent Engagement

  May 14, 2020

Legitimacy is needed within civil society organizations to ensure both domestic and international public support in order to endure sudden or extended changes in times of uncertainty. But what grants an organization legitimacy? At the heart of it lies trust – this involves establishing a social contract between an organization and its constituents on whose behalf it is working.  Legitimacy requires being true to a mission through messages and actions.

We know now why trust is so critical from the previous piece in this civil society resiliency series on situational awareness. There is an overall low level of trust in all aspects of today’s society and this has ripple effects on support for nonprofits and other civil society actors.

Get a quick explanation of Legitimacy from PartnersGlobal President & CEO Julia Roig below. Legitimacy is one of seven key factors of civil society resiliency in PartnersGlobal’s Resiliency+ Framework.

Dan Cardinali in his article titled “The Adaptive Challenge of Restoring Trust in Civil Society” makes a plea when he says:

“…civil society is not the ‘other;’ it’s not some external institution that affects our lives from afar. Instead, civil society is us. It’s how we associate and organize and interact with those around us. So when Americans tell pollsters that they don’t trust civil society, they are saying, in effect, that they don’t trust their fellow Americans, their neighbors.”

Kristin M. Lord calls civil society to action in her piece “Six Ways to Repair Declining Social Trust” stating:

“Philanthropists, NGOs, and social investors have a role to play too. By developing and supporting initiatives that advance social trust, they can create building blocks that add up to greater trust. They can also support efforts to study what works. We know a lot about what erodes trust. We know too little about how to rebuild it.”

Below are resources on three different sub-elements of Legitimacy—Prioritizing Accountability, Managing Public Image, and Engaging with Constituents—to help your organization stay resilient in uncertain times.

2. Prioritizing Accountability

Civil society organization (CSO) accountability is the collective understanding of an organization’s responsibility to its beneficiaries and ownership over its actions in order to prevent the erosion of legitimacy. It’s all about “walking the walk.” But how does civil society prioritize this, especially at a time when external dynamics like a pandemic require us to shift focus to other more immediate needs? It is exactly in times like these when accountability is even more important.

Alnoor Ebrahim writes in his working paper titled “The Many Faces of Nonprofit Accountability” that there are four dimensions to nonprofit accountability – finances, governance, performance, and mission – and five types of accountability mechanisms used by nonprofits in practice – reports and disclosure statements, evaluations and performance assessments, industry self-regulation, participation, and adaptive learning.

Isabelle Büchner of Accountable Now and Laurence Prinz of Keystone Accountability help us to “debunk” the top myths around primary constituent (beneficiary) accountability in their piece called “Resilient Roots: Debunking the Myths around Primary Constituent Accountability.” They argue, “primary constituent accountability is not only about transparency and evaluating effectiveness, it’s also  about meaningful dialogue with primary constituents and having the learning from this drive organisational decision-making.”

The Global Standard for CSO Accountability and Accountable Now joined forces to release this white paper titled “Dynamic Accountability: Changing Approaches to CSO Accountability.” In it, they define dynamic accountability as “a systemic approach to CSO accountability that is grounded in processes of meaningful engagement with all stakeholders that are inclusive, participatory and continuously practiced.” This includes “creating a transformational relationship between a CSO and its stakeholders” and “redressing unequal power dynamics and building mutual partnerships.”

They also have several webinars in which you can learn more about dynamic accountability or check out the 12 Commitments for Dynamic Accountability Guidance Materials, which offer several steps an organization can take to adopt a dynamic internal accountability approach.

One way to foster accountability is to create online feedback and complaint mechanisms. In the current Covid-19 crisis where face to face interviews are nearly impossible, shifting to an online mechanism enables a dynamic accountability approach. In “12 Steps to a Great Online Feedback and Complaints Mechanism,” Ezgi Akarsu of Accountable Now proposes such a mechanism to strengthen skills to integrate stakeholder feedback in order to make improvements.

Another way to ensure organizational accountability is by instituting a learning and evaluative approach to adaptive management to ensure responsiveness to beneficiary needs. This paper called “Making adaptive rigour work” from ODI and partner organizations sets out three key elements of an ‘adaptive rigour’ approach:

  1. Strengthen the quality of monitoring, evaluation and learning data and systems.
  2. Ensure appropriate investment in monitoring, evaluation and learning across the program cycle.
  3. Strengthen capacities and incentives to ensure the effective use of evidence and learning as part of decision-making, leading ultimately to improved effectiveness.

2. Managing Public Image

The deliberate management of an organization’s brand and reputation is critical to its ongoing credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of its beneficiaries and constituents. It also builds resistance to delegitimizing tactics. Communicating an organization’s purpose, achievements, failures, and initiatives or adaptations undertaken as responses to constituent feedback all factor into managing its brand and image.

As with any effort geared toward longevity and impact, the adage “consistency is key” holds up for nonprofit credibility.

But how does a civil society organization even begin to think about managing a brand? Especially in times that are so uncertain? In their piece, “The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector,” Nathalie Kylander & Christopher Stone offer a framework called the Nonprofit Brand IDEA in which IDEA stands for brand integrity, brand democracy, brand ethics, and brand affinity. They argue:

“Branding [used to be] a tool for managing the external perceptions of an organization, a subject for the communications, fundraising, and marketing departments. In contrast, the [IDEA] paradigm sees brand as having a broader and more strategic role in an organization’s core performance, as well as having an internal role in expressing an organization’s purposes, methods, and values…At every step in an organization’s strategy and at each juncture in its theory of change, a strong brand is increasingly seen as critical in helping to build operational capacity, galvanize support, and maintain focus on the social mission.”

Need support on how to utilize social media platforms to help elevate your brand and stay consistent? Check out Global Giving’s Social Media Toolkit for an excellent overview of how to maximize your content and communicate effectively.

Being honest and self-reflective also fosters an atmosphere of learning and authenticity which further enhances credibility. Acknowledging that not everything a nonprofit does results in massive impact goes a long way in terms of building trust. Sarah Crass of World Vision shares what the organization is doing to shift culture around the idea and acceptance of failure for learning in this webinar.

What should organizations be considering during an unprecedented pandemic? Aaron Kwittken of CMO Network offers five quick tips for nonprofit leaders in his recent piece “Communications Questions All Nonprofits Should Ask Themselves During this Coronavirus Pandemic.”

3. Credibility with Constituents

Accountability and credibility often go hand in hand and are used interchangeably. However, whereas accountability is holding organizations responsible for “walking the walk”, credibility is the foundation of trustworthiness and expertise upon which a durable relationship between an organization and its constituents is built. This reinforces an organization’s position in the sector despite efforts to undermine civil society.

In the article “From Input to Ownership: How Nonprofits can Engage with the People They Serve to Carry Out their Mission,” Matthew Forti and Willa Seldon of the Bridgespan Group investigate how several nonprofits are engaging their constituents, strengthening relationships, and combining local and technical knowledge to deliver better results.

Resilient Roots, an initiative coordinated by CIVICUS and funded by the Ford Foundation, tests whether organizations that are more accountable and responsive to their roots – namely, their primary constituents – are more resilient against external threats and dynamics. They’ve put together a Resource Package that contains case studies, learnings from pilot projects, and strategies for more effective constituent dialogue and engagement.

There are also several additional resources you can dig into below: