People Blog & Insights

Shining Light from the Top: Transparency in Nonprofit Orgs

The ways in which leadership communicates (or not) with staff can make or break an organization’s culture. When your staff members are unhappy or feel left in the dark, “toxic” or “problematic” are words that can quickly start buzzing around the office or Slack chat rooms. And while there are some organizations that meet those definitions, a mistrust of leadership can sometimes leave staff feeling that way even when an organization’s culture is relatively healthy. This is when transparency can be a leader’s friend, particularly in nonprofit organizations. However, with transparency comes the need to draw boundaries.  


So how can nonprofit management manage the delicate balance of openness with parameters? Keep reading to find out! 


Fighting Systems of Power Externally…and Internally 


For many nonprofits in social justice or grassroots movements, fighting imbalances of power and questioning authority are critical parts of their day-to-day work. And often, this same skepticism can turn inward. An inherent mistrust of those in power can lead staff to believe that leadership is intentionally working against, to exploit or to mislead staff. These beliefs can quickly erode the relationship between leadership and staff and negatively impact an organization’s ability to execute its mission. 


While there are spaces within the nonprofit sector that are truly broken and have damaged their staff, reputation, and mission, a knee-jerk assumption that all management is nefarious doesn’t leave room for the majority of leaders who are principled, ethical, and good at what they do. Additionally, staff members who are quick to point out where management can “do better” may not have the knowledge, experience, or insights to understand why a leader makes the choices they do or recognize that sometimes an unpopular choice may be the right one.   


Facing Criticism with Transparency 


For a management team facing disgruntled staff, transparency is often the first strategy employed to address and mitigate challenges. After all, helping staff understand what’s happening within an organization and how they fit into it, can create trust and bolster a sense of accountability for all.  


But transparency can be a slippery slope. For example, a leader may want to quiet the rumor mill when a staff member is fired by sharing some of the details, but that could breach confidentiality and leave an organization open to liability. Or, if leadership involves staff in every decision, an organization can quickly get stuck in a cycle of consensus paralysis.   


Transparency with Boundaries  


One of the most impactful ways that management can “do” transparency is by setting clear expectations about what transparency looks like within the organization. In other words, doing the literal act of defining (and sharing out) what transparency means to and across your organization. Staff doesn’t have to agree with an organization’s definition of transparency, but it is critical that they understand it. For example, transparency could mean that leadership clearly and frequently shares decision making processes, including who is involved, when a decision is being made, and the impact of those decisions. This may not mean that every staff member is part of the process or agrees with the decision, but they do have a sight line into the process. 


There will be moments when leadership does need staff input to influence or inform decisions. When that happens, it’s important to be transparent about how and if their input will be used. Management can let their staff know they’re considering multiple perspectives but that they may not be used to make the final decision.  


It’s also important for leadership to be clear about what they can and cannot share. Hiring or firing processes, pay, or funding decisions are sensitive topics that a management team may not want to share intimate details about. However, sharing policies and procedures around these situations can help staff understand how these choices are made. 


Power and Transparency Can Co-Exist 


To be effective, a leadership team needs to make quick decisions and judgment calls that can affect the entire staff. There will be instances where some staff members don’t agree with a decision. And that’s okay. Transparency isn’t about making everyone happy all of the time or involving every staff member in every choice. Instead, it’s about setting expectations around what level of details will or won’t be shared and how decision making happens. And when leadership is genuinely transparent in its policies, staff can trust in the process, even if they disagree with the outcome.  

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