One of the most frequently asked questions I received during the Great Recession was, “Should we tell staff that ____________?” You may fill in the blank with such things as, “we have spent down our reserve” or “we are going to have a cut a program” or “we are going to have to lay off staff” or similar disquieting scenarios. I’m reminded of these times for two reasons.
First, more and more folks are already likening the current development climate for nonprofits to those starting in 2007. Anxiety is mounting in those portions of our sector that are seeing a possible direct hit from the proposed federal budget as well as those that are going to feel the reverberations of philanthropic dollars being redirected to causes donors see at greater risk. In other words, we are all at risk.
Secondly, I’m at the point in the current class I’m teaching in La Salle’s Masters in Nonprofit Leadership program where students start to realize, as they do in practically every course in the program, just how important, yet sadly missing, good internal communication—and a system of communication—is to a nonprofit. (So as not to mislead, the importance of good communication is not unique to the nonprofit sector; it is essential in every organization, and beyond.)
I am continually amazed at how guarded so many executive directors and boards are with information, hoarding it, unwilling to share it with the rest of staff, because…what? What will happen if staff understand the work the board is doing (yet so few organizations provide staff access to board minutes, as a starter); the questions and struggles with which the executive director grapples (too few provide staff the professional development opportunity of working on board committees for fear of some unknown something); the challenges and potential assaults to the health and well being of the organization? Will staff jump ship and run, screaming, out the door? Highly unlikely. Will staff try to brainstorm, try to problem solve, individually or collectively, pitch in, etc.? Highly likely.
There are two ways of understanding the phrase that we hear so often: information is power. There is the negative interpretation that sees sharing information as giving people the power to control, blackmail, manipulate, and to engage in other nefarious behavior, or the power of information withheld that, too, can manipulate and take away people’s opportunity to influence their own futures. And then there is the positive view of information shared as the power that gives more people—and brains, energy, tenacity, etc. —the opportunity to take good information and use it for betterment and what seems to be negative information—such as a loss of a major funder—and try to turn things around.
Open communication recognizes positive interpretation of information as power, as well as truism that more brains are better than one. Open communication appreciates that no one person should be expected to solve the problems by him or herself, or design the next awesome program, or bear alone the results of things beyond her/his control. And open communication in a nonprofit, in particular, plays to one of the attributes of our sector that I value most: most folks working in our sector aren’t there for themselves, but for the mission. They want to help the whole—and hope that in doing so, they also help themselves. But they will go with the whole first. But it is hard to help the hole if you only understand a portion of it.
You don’t need to wait for a crisis to take a look both at what gets communicated and how that communication happens in your organization. And, in fact, you shouldn’t wait at all, but start thinking immediately about your internal communication system now. There is plenty of information that should be shared on a routine basis in order to help everyone understand the whole of the organization, from the good and the bad to the ugly. The more folks understand the reality of an organization, the more they can contribute to making that whole reality as strong as it possibly can be.
And in a crisis, and, yes, there may be one brewing, resist the temptation to nest within your own head in hopes of finding the solution on your own. It is almost a given that the best solution will be found through a collective of minds.