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Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 11: Organization Transparency

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon


You may hear others talking about transparency within organizations. Which begs the question what really is transparency and why is it important?

Transparency is like customer service. Everyone claims to do a wonderful job, yet do they?

I was at a conference where the speaker was talking about his department’s community relations program. The speaker was well known and CEO of a large local government agency organization within the state.

Following the presentation, I overheard the following conversation between a member of their management team and another person. “Wow that is impressive, you folks really do all those things?”  The response was “Noooo. But it sounds really good…doesn’t it?”  

Was the program about community relations or image building?

Certainly, the narrative was to promote the department, look good and feel good. But organizational transparency? Not a good example. It lacked honesty.


The Challenge

The challenge most private and public organizations face is building trust. Many opinion polls suggest that Americans are at a low point of trusting in their government. They are concerned about real performance and lack of transparency.

We all want our organizations to do well. When asked if your agency provides good customer service, most likely the answer will be “yes”.  When asked if we are honest in our dealing with others, most likely people will answer “yes”.  When asked do we treat members of our own organization well, most likely people will answer “yes”.

Are we really providing customer service, being honest in our dealings with others and treating our people well? Or are we promoting a false image while avoiding the issues and possible embarrassment from being truthful?

What level of credibility and trust does your organization have with your community, customers and personnel?


What is “transparency”?

Transparency is the practice of being open and honest with others. It is providing a clear, accurate and truthful representation of your organization. In the workplace, it is built upon sharing information openly. This includes the ability to provide feedback with other team members for the purpose of improvement.

Transparency is the full and honest accounting of all facts, information, and context essential to ensuring an informed decision-making process.

Transparency applies to the intentions and conduct of leaders including whether they encourage or suppress criticism and dissenting viewpoints, whether they share or conceal unflattering information and conflicts of interest.

The purpose of transparency is to build credibility and trust. These two factors are extremely beneficial in retaining volunteers.

What are the benefits of Transparency?

  • Accountability

Explaining organization strategies to your people clarifies ownership of goals and how you measure them.

  • Alignment

When your people know the strategic priorities of the organization, they can align their decisions and actions with them.

With a clear view of the destination, people can overcome obstacles and find solutions to problems faster.

  • Bottom-up feedback

Transparency promotes better bottom-up communication  and enables innovative ideas and feedback to flow from the front line to the top of the company.

By developing organizational transparency, you build trust and empower your people to speak their minds and bring forth problems, solutions and innovations early on. The culture becomes proactive and creative.


For your organization, you have a strategic plan and financial plan, or annual budget. These two documents are important because they state where the organization is headed, where you are going to spend you time, funding and resources to get there.

Does everyone understand the strategic plan and their role in accomplishing what needs to be done?

Does everyone understand the financial plan or budget? How much money is going to be received from taxes. How much is going to be generated from other programs. Where is the money going to be spent to accomplish the plan?

If you say, “Well, it is too complicated for people to understand”, then take a look at your plan.  Ask yourself, how can I explain it in clear, accurate and understandable terms so that everyone can understand it.

One of the foundations of transparency is open access to essential information. Important information should not be withheld or suppressed even though it may be embarrassing to an individual or the organization.

Any presentation of information will not be genuinely transparent if it obscures, misleads, or manipulates community members.


  • Be honest about all that you do, plan to do and have done.
  • Have a clear and well-defined Plan. Know where you are going, how you are going to get there and when you plan to get there. A clear direction and focus with the end in sight is critical.
  • Your Plan will show where you are going to spend you time, effort and resources.
  • Develop SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely)
  • Communicate the Plan to your personnel, customers and community in clear, accurate and understandable language.
  • It is important to identify the metrics which will be used to measure results. Be clear on how the programs will be measured to determine success.
  • Share both the information and the intent about the Plan and your decisions. It is important people know what you are doing but also your intent in doing so.
  • Share information and documents.
  • Accountability. Everyone should know what their role is and what they are responsible for in achieving the goals and objectives of the plan.
  • When there is a problem, remember-Fix the problem not place blame.
  • Be open with your members and community. Share with them the Good News and the Bad News. Do this in a quick and timely manner. Make sure you have the facts before you make your announcement.
  • Tell the bad news early, tell it all, and tell it yourself.
    I know you are thinking, everything? Prior to making the announcement, consult with your legal counsel. Do not leave them out of the information loop.
  • Your communication should be from the Top-down, bottom-up and side to side.
  • Have discussions and invite questions.
  • Have regular meetings to report the progress of the elements of the plan.
  • Use standardized operating procedures and processes. Be consistent.
  • Consider auditing your operation. You annually have an audit or financial review of your budget. Conduct an internal and/or external audit of your operation. An objective external source can be greatly beneficial to your success.


Transparency takes work. Trust is a valuable asset for your organization. Developing takes effort, time and consistency.

Develop transparency within your organization.

  • Tell ‘em what the Plan is.
  • Do what you say you are going to do.
  • Tell ‘em what you did. Provide the follow through.
  • Tell ‘em the good news and bad news, sooner the better.
  • Measure your results.
  • Verify your operation and procedures with an internal and external audit.