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Six ways to become a transparent nonprofit leader

I've frequently come across the topic of transparent leadership and how it relates to building and maintaining a strong culture after taking time to learn more about workplace culture. 

Transparent leadership is essentially when leaders develop a culture of trust, openness and communication with their teams. And because I spend quite a bit of time with nonprofit leaders through my work at Dot Org Solutions, it occurred to me that being a transparent leader in the nonprofit sector is a must to run a successful organization. But I must admit that it would have to be tough.

Many nonprofit leaders (especially at smaller or mid-size nonprofits) are already doing the jobs of several people. They are often working with lean budgets and must be all things to all people – clients, staff, board and donors. It is also possible that they inherited a negative culture from a predecessor or work for a director who doesn’t foster openness in the workplace.

I believe that being a transparent nonprofit leader requires even more effort than many leadership roles because of the diverse types of constituents they interact with daily – employees, clients/patients, board members, volunteers, community members and donors. Communicating and building trust among this diverse group takes time, patients and commitment.

The most effective nonprofit leaders are transparent, whether they know it or not – and those that are transparent have greater impact on their organizations. So, if you are a nonprofit leader, there are several things you can do to build transparency among your team, board, donors, volunteers and clients.

1. Be true to your organization’s mission and vision.

Your organization’s mission and vision should be your guide. Think about how your organization’s core values tie into the mission. Talk about your vision for the organization (or department) with the board and at every staff meeting possible. Don’t create new programs and services that don’t align with your mission just to secure funding from donors. If you need to make a difficult decision between two things, ask which one aligns with your mission and/or vision.

2. Communicate clearly and regularly both in good times and in bad.

We are all competing for the attention of customers, clients and donors. So, it is important for you to communicate with your constituents in a concise, relevant, regular and engaging way. If you have a newsletter, make sure you are providing important updates that fit the audience you are sending it to. Post social media messages that go beyond event postings. Have staff and board agendas that are action-oriented. And communicate the good news as well as the not-so-good news. Remember communication is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time in the right way.

3. Set annual goals and objectives and regularly communicate them to your team/board and stakeholders.

Many nonprofits have strategic plans, but they don’t have yearly goals and objectives that are the responsibility of internal staff. Setting annual goals as a team, reviewing them regularly to stay on track and celebrating successes is a great way to involve people at all levels of the organization. Your goals don’t have to just be driven by numbers served or dollars raised. Think about how you can improve processes and other operational infrastructure too.

(Call us today at 330.247.2180 to learn more about facilitating your goal-setting retreat.)

4. Know your numbers and have a dashboard to measure progress.

Transparent leaders must have a clear understanding of their financials and other key performance indicators (KPI’s) of their organization. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t. They may have come from a background where they never learned how to read and understand financial statements.  Or they don’t know what things are important to measure. Think about the top four or five things you want to review on a regular basis and create a dashboard to share with your team and board. You can have different dashboards for weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual measurements.

5. Tell your story with outcomes, not just outputs.

Many nonprofits are great at counting – people served, procedures completed, items sold, etc. However, some nonprofits need to improve on talking the outcomes – impact on people served, how the procedures changed someone’s life, how selling those items translated into job training for those in need. Telling your story well helps you sell your organization well. When people understand the “why” of what you are doing, they are more likely to be long-time supporters.

6. Know how donors’ money is being used and make sure that information is shared with them often.

Do you know how the philanthropic dollars that come to your organization are used? If a donor who gives $250 annually asks what you did with their money, could you answer them? If not, you have some work to do. Donors are becoming savvier and more selective of the nonprofits they support. Donors who feel like they understand how the nonprofit uses their gift are significantly more likely to give again and increase their gifts over time.

As a nonprofit leader, if you are transparent and foster that culture within your organization, your team and board will learn to be transparent as well. If they don’t, you will know you need to make some changes. And that’s okay.

Being a transparent leader requires thoughtful, strategic and regular communication. It’s hard, if you can make it work, you are well on your way to running a strong and impactful nonprofit.


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