Making the Case
Bitterness grows and morale diminishes when employees think crucial information and processes are hidden from them.
The Staffing the Mission survey found more discontent with lack of transparency than any other burnout factor—more than pay, benefits or hours. Only 37% of nonprofit staff surveyed rated their employers’ communication transparency as fair.
“No clear communication on decision-making, plans or goals, varying levels of pay for small staff with same workload.”— Case Study Interview
“I have no idea what the processes and procedures are for making salary decisions here.”— Case Study Interview
“There wasn’t a lot of transparency about decisions that were being made. Staff would often find out that decisions were made after the fact.”— Case Study Interview
The reasons for the lack of transparency vary. Usually it’s not due to intentional manipulation by power-hungry managers with secrets to hide. Nonprofit executive directors and managers often have no training in management or HR, and often they are struggling against burnout themselves. Under the pressure of a time-limited organizing campaign, managers may be overwhelmed putting out fires, and so chaos reigns. But clear internal communication is perhaps the most powerful tool for alignment and trust-building, which in turn undergird a more sustainable workplace and greater organizational impact.
Questions to consider when working toward effective transparency and discretion
- Do staff know all policies and decisions that affect their jobs?
- Does the organization have any unnecessary secrecy?
How to address communication from managers in the workplace
Sustainable and aspirational solutions to problematic practices
Managers habitually talk in private and fail to share significant decisions and policies with staff, in particular with staff with different identities than themselves.
The healthiest organizations have an internal culture of open communication, with abundant informal conversation among all staff and stakeholders, as well as meetings and written documentation. While too much internal focus can stress staff and drain time away from program work, reach for a balance.
Keeping information confidential should have a clear privacy rationale (e.g., the identity of anonymous donors, HR issues and individual net paycheck amounts). Staff should understand what management means by confidentiality and discretion.
Other than confidential items, transparency should be the norm.
After board meetings and major management meetings, non-personnel decisions should be shared with relevant staff in writing and verbally, along with any informational materials related to strategy options and organizational development.
At bigger organizations, an internal e-newsletter or Slack channel could include regular management reports.
Some staff feel unclear on basic information about the organization and its policies.
The big picture of organizational strategies, values, goals and structure should be explained during onboarding new staff, updated and reviewed regularly and made easily accessible to all staff.
The personnel policy should be comprehensive and handy for staff to consult. The NOLO book “Create Your Own Employee Handbook” has templates.
Annual planning and progress reports should refer back to those big picture strategies, values and goals to refresh everyone’s understanding and update as needed. Try using a dashboard to ensure good information flow across the organization.
With input from all stakeholders, create a people-centered Employer Philosophy that ties the qualities of the
employer-employee relationship to the mission and values of the organization.
Pay-setting practices are kept secret because they involve unjustifiable criteria such as when someone was hired or contracted, sources of funding for jobs, nepotism, etc.
Discuss openly the values behind your rationales for paying some staff more (e.g. seniority, responsibility, expertise, needs); explain the pay-setting policy in writing and abide by it.
Legally the organization’s 990 tax form must include the compensation of the five highest paid employees, if over $100,000.
A few nonprofits have decided that individual gross pay amounts should be shared openly, after getting consent from the entire staff. At others, certain individuals decide to disclose, while others keep their pay private. Outside facilitation of follow-up discussions may be needed to air the resulting emotions (such as resentment, shame, guilt and anger), but some organizations have reported that the resulting culture of trust and openness is worth it.