Tag Archives: transparency

Gossip’s toll in your workplace

gossipBack in March 2010, an article (registration may be required for access) in Workplace.com highlighted a study in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography regarding workplace gossip. It reviewed how rumors among employees about a company can dilute authority, can poison workplace congeniality and contribute to staff turnover, all of which can cause harm an organization without ever becoming public (external to the organization). The study is focused on paid employees, but, of course, its findings are important to nonprofits and volunteers as well. The study’s author, sociologist Tim Hallett, calls such gossip “reputational warfare,” and says that once a bad reputation has been solidified, justified or not, it usually sticks — often with negative consequences for the entire organization.

Employees and volunteers will always talk internally about how things are going at an organization, what they think the future holds, what obstacles they see facing the country, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a misunderstanding, a small fear, an unanswered question or an observation by someone uninformed about a situation can turn conversations into negative gossip, layout the foundation for mistrust, conflict, and negative public relations.

Don’t try to stop conversations about the internal workings of an organization – those conversations can be important informal training for new staff and help you discover and address issues before they become full-blown problems. But do work to make sure conversations by staff – employees, consultants and volunteers – are fact-based and within the bounds of your confidentiality policies, and work continually to create a culture where employees and volunteers share their fears, questions and suppositions early with supervisors, without fear of retribution for merely expressing a fear or asking a question.

Gossip tends to crop up when there are voids in communication. Therefore, address fears, questions and suppositions quickly and regularly. Filling the void with information — about possible office relocation, promotions, layoffs, firings, conflicts with funders or partners, budget shortfalls, etc. If a situation must be kept confidential and can’t be shared with employees, consultants and/or volunteers — for instance, the reasons why a staff person was fired — then explain why such information is kept confidential, in such a way that employees realize that you will honor their personnel issues, positive or negative, in a confidential manner as well. If the information could be damaging to the organization if released too early, then say so, explicitly. If you should have released the information sooner internally, apologize to staff and talk about what you will be doing to ensure that information is not withheld again — or ask them how they would have liked the situation to have been handled.

If you don’t want to commit anything or everything to writing, such as in a company-wide memo, then meet individually with staff and volunteers, have the executive director or a senior manager address individual department meetings, and have all-staff meetings. Give employees multiple opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns about rumors that they have heard.

But how do you know gossip is happening? By having trusting relationships across the organization – including across an organization’s hierarchy. That comes from regular conversations, formal and informal, and by showing explicitly how feedback from staff is heard, how suggestions from volunteers does influence the organization, etc. And building trust would take several more blogs to explore…

In short, you must create a culture of faith and trust among your paid staff and volunteers in each other and in the organizational leadership in order to prevent damaging gossip. It’s much easier to create and sustain such a culture than it is to try to overcome “reputational warfare.”

Also see

For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism.

Feuds in the nonprofit/NGO/charity world

Citizens academy – intensive community engagement

WA Co Oregon sheriff logoLast year, I wrote a blog in defense of police departments involving volunteers while also affirming that many police departments need drastic overhauls to be more transparent, better serve their communities and to cultivate trust with the communities they serve.

Since moving back to the USA in 2009, I’ve seen several notices from various police agencies offering a citizens academy. These aren’t mere open houses, where members of the public come in to meet a few officers, take a tour of a station, have some snacks and take a selfie with a uniformed officer. These academies take place over several weeks, with citizens receiving detailed presentations about individual programs within the department – tactical teams, narcotics investigation teams, crisis response teams, patrol, robotics, incarceration, arrests processing, etc. – and these presentations aren’t by interns or admin assistants but the officers running those programs and working on the front lines. Attendees ask questions, sometimes contentious questions (yeah, me, as usual), and officers are on-the-spot to respond.

I signed up for such a citizen’s academy by the Washington County, Oregon sheriff’s department. It’s 14 sessions, over more than two months – every Tuesday night, and also all day on three Saturdays. There are almost 30 people in the academy; by my estimation, about a third in my academy are young people wanting to be police officers, more than half are retired people interested in how the police work and who have lots of time on their hands, and the rest of us, probably just six or so people, are what I would characterize as people who want to learn more because of both or professional work and our personal politics: a mental health professional, an advocate for the mentally ill, an employee at a school, a counselor in training and… me! We’re more than halfway through the academy.

I’m taking the academy for two specific reasons: first, as a consultant and researcher regarding volunteer engagement and communications, I’m talking to organizations about community engagement. While these academies are not volunteer engagement, they are most certainly community engagement, and I wanted to see such a model up close, first hand, to see how it works and to think about ways the idea might be exported to other, non-law enforcement agencies and even overseas. I think this model of community engagement forces a level of transparency across an agency, something in which many programs are great need. It’s not something that could be instituted overnight – it would require a cultural change at most agencies to institute something like this. I also would like to see police departments in transitional countries in particular, with reputations for police corruption and abuses, instituting their own citizen academies, jail tours, job shadows and ridealongs, but I can’t advocate for that in my work overseas if I haven’t experienced it myself.

Secondly, I’m a human rights advocate, and when I look at what happened in Ferguson, Missouri in particular, I am outraged. And I think about, and sometimes see, police abuses worldwide – corruption in police departments, under the guise of fees, fines, and law enforcement (like forfeiture), happens in many places globally. Reflecting a theme I said in a blog earlier, I would love to see Black Lives Matter advocates and police reform advocates signing up for these citizen academies at police and sheriff’s departments across the USA, as well signing up for jail tours and job shadows and ride alongs with patrol officers – I think it could create more understanding and change for both the police and the community.

I am really enjoying this academy, but there are two things missing: first, there should have been a survey of participants at the very first session about their perceptions of both the sheriff’s department and police and jails in general. Then, at our last class, they should give us that survey again. It would be fascinating to see if perceptions are changed. Secondly, the problems with the sheriff’s department regarding its own officers and other staff, such as this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this or this, or this – all happening in the last three years – have not been mentioned – just a comment about “We’ve taken a beating in the media.” We really should have heard from someone in charge of internal investigations and about efforts to create a culture of respect within the department for women, teens, immigrants, etc.

Presenters should also keep in mind that they are talking to a diverse group in terms of feelings about the police and government. For instance, a few people in the class have had incarcerated family members and others on the other side of the criminal justice system; jokes about people in the throes of a drug aren’t always appreciated by such. Presenters are certainly entitled to share their opinions – I really like knowing where they stand – but they might not want to assume the silence of some people in the room means agreement.

I’d also like to see a similar academy for officers and jail staff themselves, done by various nonprofit and government agencies that serve crime victims (and those frequently targeted by criminals), such as domestic violence shelters, mental health providers, rape counseling centers, nonprofits working with immigrants, etc., that serve those that have been arrested and incarcerated, such as nonprofits working with gang members, programs serving people with alcohol and drug abuse problems, etc., and those that are engaged in local human rights and racial justice issues  That would force a level of face-to-face detail and discussion and even debate that’s very much needed in many communities.

All that said – HUGE kudos to the Washington County, Oregon’s Sheriff’s Department for doing this academy. It’s very well done, it’s a model for other police departments looking to do something like this, I’ve really enjoyed it so far, I’m really looking forward to the rest of the presentations and experiences, and I highly recommend it.

In case you are wondering, yes, I did a ride along with a deputy. I went on a shift from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. It was fascinating. I hope I wasn’t too annoying with my many, many questions.

Update April 10, 2016: The Oregonian today published a profile of the death in 2014 of an inmate in the Washington County jail.

Update August 10, 2016: The first known citizen’s police academy held in the USA was established in Orlando in 1985, according to a report from the Criminal Justice Institute. Last year, the International Association for Chiefs of Police listed such academies as an integral way to improve community relations. Establishing these courses was also named as an action item in the final report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The National Citizens Police Academy Association explains the importance of the courses on its website.

Also see this info and resources regarding police corruption in other countries:

Handbook on police accountability, oversight and integrity from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Policy Briefing Paper: Gender Sensitive Police Reform in Post Conflict Societies from United Nations Women.

Ukraine replaces entire police force to beat corruption

Corrupt Mexico Police Concentrated in 10 States

Bulgaria Launches Ambitious Plan to Curb Police Corruption

Nigeria Police Extortion: Buhari Warns Against Corruption In National Force

Don’t shoot the questioner

logoGovernment agencies and nonprofits HATE my questions on social media. I ask them publicly because, often, I don’t get a response via email – or because I want my exchange with the organization to be public. Questions like:

  • Where is the list on your web site of your board of directors?
  • Where is the bio on your web site of your executive director/program director, etc.?
  • Where is your latest annual report of finances (income and expenditures) on your web site?
  • I saw your quote in the newspaper, and wondered: where is the evaluation that says your program lead to a 30% drop in juvenile crime? Is there a link on your web site to this study?
  • You have a form on your web site for people who want to volunteer to fill out/an email address for people that want to volunteer, but you never say what volunteers actually do. What do volunteers at your organization do?

Responses, if they come at all, rarely thank me for pointing out missing information on the web site, or apologize for not having such. Rather, most responses are one of these:

  • We’re not required by law to provide that. 
  • Our web site is being redesigned. It will be a part of the new web site. (no date is provided on when the web site will be re-launched)
  • That information is confidential. 
  • That information is on our web site (with no link to where it is).
  • Why are you asking?

I admit that I sometimes ask a question because I’m annoyed that the organization isn’t being transparent, or because a newspaper reporter wrote a glowing story I read about the organization or program didn’t ask these questions – just took every quote from the representative as fact. But I also ask the questions because I’ve sometimes considered donating to an organization, or volunteering with such – and I’m then stunned at the lack of transparency.

None of these questions should bother any organization or agency. None. They are all legitimate questions. Often, they are questions you yourself invite, by talking at civic groups or in the press about the quality of your leadership, the impact your organization is having, the services your organization provides and your value to the community.

If you say you don’t have time to provide this basic information on your web site, one has to ask: what is it that you are spending your time on?

Also see:

Use Tech to Show Your Accountability and To Teach Others About the Nonprofit Sector!
Mission-Based groups are under growing scrutiny. What you put on your web site can help counter the onslaught of “news” stories regarding mission-based organizations and how they spent charitable contributions.

Which nonprofits serving military veterans are worthwhile?

logoI get asked this question now and again, and I see this question posted in various places:

I want to donate money to help USA military veterans and their families. Which nonprofits are really worthwhile?

Sadly, I have trouble answering the question, because there are just too many news articles about very shady happenings by organizations claiming to help military veterans, such as this story from CNN’s Anderson Cooper, another one from Cooper, this one from the Daily Beast, this one from Veterans Today, and this from the Tampa Bay Times. I also find the TV commercials of several of these organizations emotionally-manipulative, as though donating to their organization proves your patriotism.

I’m not going to name any of the organizations in question, but it’s worth it to click on those previously-mentioned links and see the organization names yourself – some will be very recognizable.

Here are some questions you can use as you look at a web site to help you evaluate an organization that claims to help military veterans and their families:

  • Does this organization have a prominent link right on the home page for veterans or families of such in need of services – a link as prominent as its links for financial donors? If not, then it’s a red flag: how can an organization say it serves veterans or families of such but not have an obvious way for people to seek services? If it does have a link, click on it. Does the organization have just one page that talks about vague benefits – events, discounts, camaraderie, etc. – rather than concrete service information like mental health services / counseling, rehabilitation resources, accommodation adjustments in housing, debt management, help with government paperwork, job re-training, etc.? In short: pretend you are a veteran or family member in need and look at the web site from that perspective, then ask yourself this question: are you able to find information about services you urgently need?
  • Does the organization list its services as, primarily, directing veterans and their families to other agencies to help with health services, rehabilitation, job placement, etc. – or does the organization actually provide those services directly? If the former, your donation might be better going directly to those organizations that actually provide the services, since the organization is just referring people other organizations.
  • Does the organization say, right on the home page, that it involves volunteers? If no, that’s a red flag – why would a nonprofit not involve volunteers? Are they hiding something? If they do have such a link to volunteering information, do volunteers help in direct service, or do volunteers help just with fundraising? If the former, that’s a good sign that this is a legitimate organization, as they have a commitment to members of the public seeing their work firsthand – they value that kind of investment in their work. If the latter, then that’s a red flag: this organization sees volunteers only as fundraisers, as money-makers. There’s nothing wrong with volunteers being fundraisers, but if that’s the ONLY way the organization involves volunteers, it may mean the organization is concerned only with raising large amounts of money.
  • Does the organization provide an accounting of how it spends money, beyond saying, “80% of money raised goes to services”? For instance, what percentage of the organization’s staff is working in direct support to veterans and their families, versus staff working to raise funds, manage volunteers that raise funds, marketing staff, etc.?

Those are my suggestions of questions to ask before you donate financially to an organization that claims to help veterans and their families.

So, can I recommend any organization myself as one I would donate to (and maybe I have donated to)? Yes. I recommend the USO.

Campaign to End the Overhead Myth

Guidestar CEO, Jacob Harold, published a letter condemning the use of administrative expenses as a measure of nonprofit performance. You can read the entire message at www.overheadmyth.com.

The letter was co-signed by Art Taylor, president and CEO of BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator—making it the first time the three leading nonprofit information providers joined together to share the same message: the percentage of a charity’s expenses that go to administrative costs, the “overhead” ratio, is not appropriate to consider when determining if the nonprofit is effective or efficient.

You can get involved!

For nonprofits: visit www.overheadmyth.com to print the letter, and include it in your postal mailing to supporters. Include a summary and link on your web site, your blog, on your Facebook page, on Twitter, and in any email newsletters.

Publicly commit to ending the focus on overhead by signing the pledge at www.overheadmyth.com.

Spread the word about the Overhead Myth campaign to your own networks online. Guidestar has created a communications and social media tool kit with turn-key content that you’re welcome to use: www.overheadmyth.com/press. But don’t just send out canned messages – say why you are particularly interested in this campaign.

Get your supporters, including volunteers, involved. Encourage them to share info about the campaign via their social media networks, and to blog about it, as well.

Nonprofits: Share your data and information with Guidestar. “We need nonprofit leaders to provide more public information about their missions, programs, and results so we can move past the overhead ratio once and for all. Our GuideStar Exchange program allows nonprofits to share data with stakeholders for free!”

And here’s the freaky part: I whined about the misplaced focus on overhead costs at nonprofits just a few hours ago on TechSoup.

This is an issue that’s very near and dear to me.

Also see: Survival Strategies for Nonprofits , a guide for nonprofits facing critical budget shortfalls.

Aid in Haiti is failing

A few weeks ago, the radio show This American Life did an great show focused on aid in Haiti. If you want to understand the roadblocks to improving things in Haiti, it’s worth your time to listen to this show. Notice how some of the blocks are because of policies donors have implemented to try to prevent corruption.

It can be hard to get your mind around, but aid actually sometimes harms people, rather than helping, even in Haiti. There are stories of rice farmers in rural parts of Haiti not being able to sell their crops because, with all the rice donations from other countries, there is no market for products. Would-be Haitian contractors are also missing out on jobs because foreign contractors are being chosen by aid agencies instead. Sometimes cheaper, or even most modern, doesn’t mean better, in the long-term, for local people needing the aid.

Time has a story Haiti’s Failed Recovery: Who’s to Blame? that presents the two camps regarding why recovery in Haiti is failing:

For the anti-NGO camp, Haiti is a case study in the hypocrisy of the global relief bandwagon that descends on poor countries victimized by wars, famine and natural disasters. A growing chorus of critics accuses humanitarian-aid groups of using misery to validate their existence, spending funds inefficiently and creating a culture of dependence among the people they are supposed to help… If you belong to the “blame Haiti” camp, you’re less likely to ascribe the post earthquake mess to outsiders than to the country’s defective political culture. In recent years, development economists have sought to explain why some countries lift themselves out of poverty while others chronically underachieve. Stable, transparent institutions – like police, courts and banks – are critical to the success of poor nations. But Haiti’s long history of disarray has left it with few institutions worthy of trust. For those who emphasize such internal factors, Haiti wouldn’t be saved even if every dollar of aid money were spent and every NGO disappeared tomorrow. Until the country’s political class proves it can govern, Haiti’s people will continue to suffer.

I certainly offer no solution — it’s a systemic problem across sectors that defies a simplistic solution. I will say that aid agencies need to be reading these stories and looking at their messages to the public and to donors. They need to be showing how many local staff they are hiring versus how many foreign staff they are bringing in, and highlighting what steps they are taking so that Haitians are not just contributing to their own relief, they are leading it, and will eventually take over from the aid agency completely. They also have to be open about corruption – don’t shy away from talking about problems with transparency, even if it’s just in internal reports or reports to donors.

It’s not time to give up. But it is time to pay greater attention.


John Mitchell, Director of ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) has posted a blog about how the media is portraying what is happening in Haiti. It’s very much worth your time to read.

Beware those charity rating sites

Very few nonprofits hand out cash to people. Instead, they provide services. Those services could be just about anything: nutritious food for people who can’t afford to feed themselves, live theater, counseling for people who have been victims of domestic violence, shelter for unwanted animals, job training for people desperate to enter or re-enter the workforce, day care activities for people with severe disabilities, and on and on and on.

Many of these services are designed, overseen or provided by professionals — people who have the training and experience to provide specialized services. These nonprofit professionals are just like those in any for-profit profession: they have spent a lot of money on their education and training, they have bills to pay, they have health care costs, they want to be able to buy homes and put their kids through school, they need a retirement plan, etc. And to keep the best people, nonprofits have to pay competitive salaries (and their competition isn’t just nonprofits — its businesses as well).

All of these organizations have rent to pay, equipment and supplies to buy (copy machines, computers, paper, furniture), insurance and utlities to pay for, and on and on.

What about any of these costs isn’t related to program costs? A copy machine may mean the difference between serving 1000 people as opposed to just 100. A trained social worker with a Master’s degree may mean the difference in providing a job counseling program and not providing one at all. A paid, full-time manager of volunteers may mean the difference between involving 100 volunteers and just a dozen or less.

With all that in mind, I have a lot of skepticism for claims that nonprofits give too much to administative costs, as well as for grading systems that are focused mostly on financial reports and not-so-much on the results of a nonprofit’s work. Some nonprofits have told me that they have been forced to hire a revolving door of short-term consultants instead of full time employees because, the way sites charity rating organizations or the way funders count administrative costs, a consultant can be counted as a program cost, but an employee, doing exactly the same work, is considered administrative.

As the Nonprofit Quarterly put it recently, “With one holiday giving article after another urging donors to do their homework on charities, it would be nice to believe that those that set themselves up to inform donors would take care not to do harm.”

Here’s some of the many criticisms of these charity rating sites:

Here’s my advice: when evaluating a charity, look for accredication by professional bodies, such as the Council of Accreditation. Look for membership in national or international networks. Look at what the organization says it does; don’t just look at activities – look at results. Look to see if they involve volunteers — not because volunteers are “free” and replace paid staff but, rather, because volunteers prove community investment in the organization. If you don’t see this documented on the organization’s web site, email the organization and ask for it.

But remember that many large donors refuse to fund administrative costs, and that means the organization may not have the funding to hire the staff that would be needed to provide the level of detail regarding its programs you and others may want — because, you know, that’s an administrative cost.