SHEDG needs to re-open commuication with constituents

The Sweet Home Economic Development Group has done much for Sweet Home, more than it sometimes gets credit for.

Even in financially difficult times, including at least three recent years in which the organization has been operating in the red, Sweet Home has benefited from SHEDG’s efforts.

Having said that, we believe SHEDG needs to tighten its connection to the community. This is a grass-roots organization that, in the last several years, has become increasingly insular, particularly in divulging its financial condition.

With the rise of a competing festival a dozen miles down the road and two weeks removed from Jamboree Weekend, and a rotating membership on the SHEDG Board of Directors, it’s not hard to see where and how the flow of information to Sweet Home residents has dried up.

But it isn’t good. SHEDG is not some private charitable foundation, or a service organization like the Boys and Girls Club.

SHEDG was founded a quarter-century ago in response to the catastrophic effects of the spotted owl judicial rulings that largely ruined the local economy. Its mission was “to effectively lead efforts to enhance and promote thriving diverse economic development in the Sweet Home community.”

This was and is a grass-roots effort. People from across the community got involved in a self-help effort that has lasted for more than two decades. SHEDG’s Board of Directors membership list from years gone by reads like a Who’s Who of Sweet Home. More Sweet Home residents than the current Board of Directors –which is starting out a new year with new members in its first meeting Wednesday, April 16 – have an investment in this organization and its success.

The New Era has made a number of efforts to convince SHEDG’s leadership that it is better served to be open about its financial situation, but to no avail.

The argument for tight lips has been that similar nonprofits do not divulge their bottom line to their communities, and SHEDG should not. The perception that the competition shouldn’t know how the Oregon Jamboree is faring financially has also been a strong factor in the decision to play their cards close to their vests. Also, some SHEDG folks have suggested that telling people the bad news isn’t good for their relationship with the public.

We beg to differ.

A minimal amount of web surfing pokes holes in that first point. True, there aren’t too many community-based nonprofits in Oregon whose mission is similar to SHEDG’s, but the first one we found, the Astoria Music Festival, apparently doesn’t share those reservations. In a Daily Astorian newspaper report dated Jan. 1 of this year, we learn that the festival has an operating budget of $312,000 and is concluding “its fiscal year with a balanced budget, continuing its record of deficit-free operation.”

Of course, the fact that they’re not in the red is good news, but we suspect that, given the festival is open about its financial bottom line, they would let their constituents know if things weren’t going well.

Since there are few community-based, grass-roots music festivals such as the Oregon Jamboree, we decided to check out Oregon Public Broadcasting, which also describes itself as a community-based organization.

Visitors to OPB’s website will find a list of PDF downloads, including their Form 990s (more on that in a moment) and a slew of independent auditor’s reports and financial reports for its various departments.

That’s the kind of transparency we want to see from SHEDG. Form 990 is a statement that certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS, which provides information on the filing organization’s mission, programs, and finances. SHEDG is required to file this form, along with other local nonprofits. It includes bottom-line financial and personnel information and it is a public record, something citizens should freely be able to access.

Throwing up walls is a bad business for a nonprofit that should be considerate of the importance of public trust and good will. Thinking people wonder what there is to hide.

Sweet Home shouldn’t be forced to rely on SHEDG’s Form 990 to learn how this very important local entity is doing. This isn’t a newspaper issue. It’s an issue of public trust. Multitudes of Sweet Home residents have invested time and money over the years in the Jamboree. It’s their baby as much as it is the 11 board members’, who have increasingly held most of their meetings behind closed doors in recent years.

The New Era has maintained consistently, both in private discussions with Jamboree and SHEDG officials and openly to the entire board, that SHEDG and its constituents would be best served if the board followed the same rules employed by local government bodies: meetings are open to the public unless the discussion is centering on personnel disciplinary issues or employment negotiations, legal issues (lawsuits), real estate transaction negotiations, matters of trade or investment (in which the governing body is in competition), and a few other exceptions.

In the past, when SHEDG meetings were open to the public and to The New Era reporters, we did not report “sensitive” information about how much the Jamboree was paying so-and-so for a performance, or other such information. Really, those of us on the street do not need to know that.

But being stubbornly tight-lipped on information that SHEDG is, eventually, legally required to report in public records, makes little sense and creates, in our opinion, a breach of trust between the organization and its constituents – the community.

Incidentally, the Oregon Department of Justice’s open meetings guide, available at (, states our point rather effectively: “Open meetings help citizens understand decisions and build trust in government. It is better to comply with the spirit of the law and keep deliberations open.”

Though SHEDG isn’t government, we think the principle applies rather well.

The New Era is a business and we understand the concern about divulging information to “competitors.” But, frankly, most for-profit organizations that have shareholders divulge such information and, really, how much do the competitors care? As a business, The New Era’s competition tends to come from the Albany Democrat-Herald, KFIR radio station and Tell-N-Sell. But what’s of a lot more concern to us is whether we’re meeting our financial obligations, not whether somebody else is making a profit.

The same should hold true of the Willamette Country Music Festival or any other supposed competitor to the Jamboree. Is their primary concern whether the Jamboree is in the black? Whatever other motivations a festival director might have regarding the competition, the pressing concern is whether people are buying tickets and whether the numbers are adding up in the profits column.

Then there’s the “bad news shouldn’t be news” argument. Although corporate and government entities are notorious for reluctance to admit their flaws, leading public relations experts have maintained since the field was born in the early 1900s that honesty is ultimately the best policy.

Openness creates much more good will than concealing the truth does, even if it’s a “negative” truth, in the long run. Openness creates trust. Journalists aren’t the only ones who wonder what’s really going on when they encounter deliberate obfuscation.

The bottom line is that SHEDG needs to communicate with its constituency. We’re not talking about the Oregon Jamboree staff communicating with potential customers. We’re talking about the people making the decisions communicating with the people affected by those decisions and who have a stake, at least emotional, in them.

Experts in nonprofit management are forthright in stating the importance of communication with constituents.

For example, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits introduces a series of Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence with this statement: “Nonprofits have an ethical obligation to their constituents and the public to conduct their activities with accountability and transparency. Nonprofits should regularly and openly convey information to the public about their mission, activities, accomplishments and decision-making processes. Information from a nonprofit organization should be easily accessible to the public and should create external visibility, public understanding and trust in the organization.”

Holding unnecessary closed-session meetings and refusing to divulge financial information that is, by law, open to public scrutiny at a later date sends the wrong message to a community that has supported the Jamboree through thick and thin. This is a group effort, supported by hundreds of local volunteers. Sweet Home’s population is SHEDG’s constituency.

We urge the current board to consider its obligations to that constituency and stop operating behind closed doors.