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Transparency in Organizational Practices and Leadership

Organizations have looked to transparency as a way to push their mission, build donor trust, boost engagement with stakeholders, and manage liability. To a certain extent, transparency is required of us as nonprofits through items like our IRS form 990 and our grant reports. However, we should view this as the most basic level of transparent achievement and strive for further openness. "The more transparent an organization is the healthier and more productive it's going to be and the less trouble it's going to get into," says leadership expert Warren Bennis. In addition, open systems are more trauma-informed and mitigate the effects of organizational and vicarious trauma so common to our field.

The following are ways to work toward a more transparent organization (some adaptation from Straight A Leadership: Alignment, Action, Accountability by Quint Studer.)

Make sure agency leadership is on the same page.

Does everyone see the external environment the same way? Does everyone understand organizational goals and plans? Does everyone agree on what success looks like? If not, this will be one of the first things to address on your road to transparency-aligned leadership.

Close the perception gap between leadership and staff.

If you are the executive director, it is critical to make sure that all staff understand the big-picture issues and their implications. It is one of the most important parts of your job.

Help people understand the true financial impact of decisions.

Get comfortable framing all major decisions in economic terms. Frontline staff, too, need to understand the real cost of services as well as grant requirements. Making grants accessible and encouraging folks to read them is not only a practice in transparency but can improve overall grant compliance and assist in supervision.

Have systems in place to communicate with frontline workers, particularly those who work on weekends and overnights.

This means putting in place a system, or a series of systems, to ensure that transparency gets translated into action and reaches employees on the margins of 24-hour programming.

Create a culture of expectation and routine.

This can help mitigate negative effects of vicarious trauma. Knowledge about vicarious trauma can help us be prepared to respond to it. When we have clarity around expectations and effects, we are more confident and secure.

As leaders, be prepared to answer tough questions.

Anticipate tough questions and formulate an honest and consistent response for leaders at all levels. This allows everyone to answer them consistently.

When you have bad news, treat employees like adults.

Once a tough decision has been made, share it with everyone immediately. You can mitigate effects of organizational trauma by being honest and direct about what is happening and offer opportunities for open discussion.

Keep people posted.

When something changes, let employees know. Make sure to follow up on the any tough decision items as listed above. In addition to challenges, positive or (perceptibly) neutral changes are important to pass along. This builds trust between leaders and staff and keeps them connected to the big picture.

Make progress measurable and connected to the bigger picture.

Acknowledge and celebrate successes, however small, and discuss how these successes are tied to healing for survivors. Evaluate programming and share the results with staff, board, and your community.

"Transparent leadership allows employees to be more honest about their individual viewpoints and more open about expressing them in a public dialogue. The more openness and honesty you facilitate in the context of your team, the faster you'll be able to work together to achieve a common end goal." (Demers)

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Reviewed: May 4th, 2017