Transparency is hard but we should all try: a challenge for Elevate Festival

A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute to Elevate Festival by watching livestreams of debates, joining in on Twitter and otherwise increasing the web presence of the festival. Elevate is discussing a wide range of things I am interested so I was happy to do this, but these days I really like to know what I’m getting involved in. I think that non-profits as well as governments should be transparent. Transparency should be the default for every organisation. So I looked through their website for more info about the organisation that runs it and there was some info available but not enough for me. So I sent this email:

Hello Elevate People, I am thinking of participating in your upcoming festival, which looks very interesting. I am therefore interested to know how the Elevate organisation is structured, who has control of it, how much money you get from which sources, and how that money is spent, including salaries. I was unable to find this information on your website. I wonder if you could point me towards it or send it to me.

Many thanks

So someone in the Elevate office was good enough to reply to me and here is the reply:

Elevate is run by our assciation “Verein Elevate”. This association is a Not For Profit
venture and we are mainly funded by public money. You can see a list of funders and sponsors
here: http://2013.elevate.at/en/festival/about/partners/

Here is the imprint of the website with the associations’ full title and
registration number: http://2013.elevate.at/en/about/imprint/

Details about budgets, employees, salaries and other expenses are transparent to the members
of our association and all funding entities. We dont see a reason to change this policy.

all the best

This information isn’t really enough for me and I’ll explain why in a moment. But first I want to say that I think Elevate is trying to do a good thing and I’m not trying to say that there is anything bad about them. The only problem is that this lack of transparency is normal and they have taken the normal path.

So why does it bother me? Let me give the example of Couchsurfing. For a while the website for free hosting seemed like an ideal gift economy. Not only did people host people for free, but the site was kept going by a lot of volunteer effort. Then the private capital came in and we discovered that the organisation was actually controlled by one person who was going to get rich from it. It was a pretty disgraceful example of abusing people’s goodwill for personal gain. I, like many people, had not paid enough attention to how Couchsurfing was constructed. It turned out its non-profit status had never been certain so it was easy to transit to a for-profit model. Now Elevate is clearly a non-profit and they make an effort to show that to people, so that is an improvement. However I can still think of multiple ways in which an organisation whose structure I don’t fully understand could be leveraged by individuals or groups to gain advantage from the free labour that I and others are putting into it.

Again, I believe that Elevate is trying to do a good thing so this challenge is a friendly one written as input to the Knowledge is Power session: why not be transparent about exactly how Elevate is organised and who benefits financially? Then we, the participants, could all understand exactly what it is we are involved in and this would help us all ensure that Elevate continues to do good things. Developing open habits means all organisations should try to be open, not just governments. I believe the radical question for every organisation shouldn’t be “Why should we tell people?” It should be “Why shouldn’t we tell people?”

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