Transparency as a Value and as a Strategy

by: Jack Johnson, Destinations International

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Values are important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a community about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. They serve as broad guidelines in all situations and are important in the way we live and work. Core to our industry are those values we hold which form the foundation on which we perform work and conduct ourselves. These are so important to us that throughout the changes in society, politics, and technology, they still are the foundation upon which we build our organization and develop our programs.

Destinations International identified eight values that our industry embodies (or should embody) including Transparency. Transparency in this sense means to be open to public scrutiny. Destination organizations should gladly inform their stakeholders and their community about what the destination organization does, how they operate and the return on investment. If an organization expects support for their efforts, they need to make sure everyone understands the “what” and “why” of what they do.

Transparency means that in addition to sharing successes and victories, destination organizations should share when they have fallen short or failed. Too often organizations hide the bad news for fear of the appearance it would create.  That is natural; people rarely advertise failures unless they have been followed by success born out of the lessons from the failure. But by hiding failures or loses the destination organization undercuts their own credibility.  For the same reason that people don’t trust products that have a 5-star rating but will gladly buy something that has only 4.5-stars – no one believes perfection. If all you do is consistently put out good news, then people will start to question your measurements.  That said, failure needs to be talked about in conjunction with what has been learned and how it will be corrected.

Finally, transparency requires organizations be responsible and accountable without any prompting or prodding. Do not wait for a press inquiry, a freedom of information request or a lawsuit. This immediately puts you on the defensive by making people wonder why you were hiding the information in the first place.  As a result, you will be scrambling to control the narrative. Instead get in front of things by putting a wide selection of information out into the public sphere. Most people will not need to read it because merely the act of putting the information out there in an act of saying we have nothing to hide.  We welcome you. We are trustworthy. We are transparent.

The type of information that should be on your website proactively

Destinations International believes that every destination organization should have an “About Us” section on their website. We understand the desire of many to keep their visitor facing efforts free of non-promotional information. But that is to ignore what a destination organization is – a local expert of every aspect of your community.  You are a destination booster with a perspective that is very much a proponent of your destination, because you chose to live and work there. Because you know every inch of it. Being upfront about this is transparency and it gives you credibility. And a full and vibrant “About Us” section proves that perspective and showcases that knowledge.

The following list, when available, is what we believe is the minimum that belongs on a destination organization website to show their commitment to the value of transparency.

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General Information

Do not underestimate the importance of this information and the care you should give to the preparation. Overworked and shorthanded government staff and media will often cut and paste the information you provide. This allows you to describe your organization in a way that will be repeated elsewhere in the public arena over and over. It is important that it is accurate, up to date and easy to find. The following general information areas may seem like they should be a low priority, but they are not. They set the tone and feel for your organization’s commitment to transparency and lay the groundwork for developing a positive perception in your community.

About Us Statement

Do you have an About Us statement or page that tells the world who you are, what matters to you, what you do and how you do it?

This is often one of the first stops when someone visits your website. This is certainly true when the press, government officials and residents are looking to learn more about your organization. And it is one of the best opportunities for your organization to tell the world what makes it special.

Contact Information

Are the following points of contact provided: telephone number, e-mail/online form, and mailing address?

Make it easy for people and potential partners to find a path to connect with someone inside the destination organization. It may seem like a small thing, but failure to provide an easy way to connect with your organization will create unneeded frustration.

Vision & Mission Statement

Are a vision and mission statement available?

Increase understanding about your organization’s work and build stakeholder credibility and public trust by posting your organization’s mission statement. This is also your best opportunity to define your mission, your purpose for existing as opposed to others defining it for you.

Organizational Values

Is a list of the core values or principles which the destination organization will abide by no matter what available?

Organizational values will inspire employees' best efforts and constrain their actions. They can limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behavior of its people. They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And they demand constant vigilance. Then why go through the process of developing them? If you are willing to devote the time and energy to creating an authentic list of organizational values, there is a good chance that the resulting values will better position your company to excel as well as defend against any slings and arrows.

Key Staff List

Are the names of executives and program staff available?

Humanize your organization by using your website to reveal the people inside the organization. Showing your organization is made up of people not corporations will go a long way in connecting with your residents. This also has the possibility to increase the potential for collaboration and coordination.

Key Staff Biographies

Are biographies of executives and program staff available?

Build credibility and public trust by providing biographies of executives and program staff. These biographies should show information and civic involvement wherever possible to create connections between the staff and the community they serve.

Board of Directors List

Is a list of Board members and their affiliations available?

Build credibility and public trust by using your website to reveal details about who oversees the foundation’s governance. Taking the extra step of posting board members’ affiliations helps outside stakeholders better understand the network and sphere of influence of the foundation.

Board of Directors Biographies

As with the staff, build credibility and public trust by providing biographies of the members of the board. Again, these biographies should show information and civic involvement wherever possible to create connections between the board members and the community they serve. This is particularly important if your board is dominated by a single constituency such as hotel general managers. Positioning them as members of the community will help reduce suspicion that the destination is an example of corporate welfare.

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Governance

Bylaws are an important governance document that serve as the rules and regulations enacted by an association or foundation to provide a framework for its operation and management.   Build credibility and public trust by using your website to reveal the details about how your organization is governed. In addition to posting the bylaws, we recommend summarizing the structure of the board including outlining the officers, any committees (consider including committee charters) and annual meeting requirements.

We recommend going further and include various policies governing the board and/or the staff to underscore your organization’s commitment to professional and ethical conduct. This goes a long way to establishing credibility of being a sound fiduciary of other people’s money and the community brand.

Bylaws

Are the foundation’s governing bylaws available?

Code of Conduct & Conflict of Interest Policies

Are policies guiding the destination organization board (and staff) conduct available, and do they include a procedure for reporting non-compliance?

Transparency Policy

Is a copy of a formal policy outlining the organization’s commitment to transparency and the list of items to be included in the public portion of the website available?

Whistleblower Procedures

Is a policy regarding the reporting of financial improprieties or other misconduct available?

Executive Compensation Policy & Process

Is the policy that governs and the process used to determine executive compensation described?

Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Statements & Policies

Does the foundation provide information about its commitment or policies relative to equity, diversity, and inclusion?

Diversity Data

Is statistical information provided about the demographics of the foundation’s workforce and board leadership?

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Performance Measurement

The problems foundations address are large ones that require collective action to solve. Sharing your strategic roadmap helps peers and partners understand if and where they might align, and how to join you on the journey. This includes a demonstration to assess performance, accept feedback and improve.

Strategic Plan

Is information readily available that explains how the destination organization defines its overall strategy, direction, and priority setting?

Assessment of Overall Organization Performance

Is there a comprehensive assessment of overall destination organization performance and effectiveness that measures progress toward the mission and goals?

Community Feedback Mechanism

Is there an online mechanism in place so that members of the community can regularly provide the organization with feedback?

Resident Sentiment Survey Results

Has the organization conducted a periodic survey of the community’s residents and shared the results publicly?

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Financial Information

These documents are the starting point in showing you ability to operate the organization and be a good fiduciary of other people’s money. Too often these documents are not included because of the perceived sensitive nature of some of the information included in the documents. Posting them will show that you are open and transparent about how you operate. Frankly, most of these are available elsewhere so they can be disclosed. Your organization might as well get the credit for doing so.  That said, be prepared to answer any questions that may arise from these documents before they are posted.

Audited Financial Statements

Are the most recent audited financial statements available?

Form 990

Is the most recent 990-PF available?

The 990 is an important regulatory document that annually provides a mechanism for transparency about your foundation’s governance, finance, operations, and expenditures.

Investment Policies

Are policy statements about how the organization invests its money provided?

About the Author

Jack Johnson headshot
Jack Johnson
Chief Advocacy Officer
Destinations International
Jack manages the overall public policy operations at Destinations International including member advocacy education and training, development of destination tools and best practices, coalition work with peer organizations, industry research and related public affairs activities. Currently, his work around positioning destination organizations as a shared value in each of their communities and speaking with a new lexicon based on the emotion-driven by those values has made him one of the leading voices of the travel industry.