Trust your staff

Trust your staff.

That is point number one in a recent post by Allyson Kapin on Frogloop titled Tips to Create a Culture of Collaboration and Innovation.

Leo Cullum cartoons on innovative thinking in the office.
Leo Cullum cartoons on innovative thinking in the office.

It’s interesting to us that a commentary on ways organizations can create collaborative and innovative cultures should begin by emphasizing trust in staff. Most nonprofits, after all, are intensely staff driven. For many, staff knowledge is their key asset. Salaries (and overhead) comprise the vast majority of expenses. This is perhaps even more true (or should be) in advocacy organizations whose activities revolve around research, policy analysis, lobbying and communications.

What does “trust your staff” have to do with innovation? As mentioned above, staff are all you have. The external pressures on organizations and pace of change around them require teams that are trusted to implement, innovate and learn quickly.

Numerous factors are coming together that make it more important than ever that staff be both strong actors and collaborative contributors to iterative growth and learning in organizations. Online communications is empowering citizens, activists and donors to take action, make donations, get involved and speak out in ways and at times that organizations can’t control. People have more ways than ever to do things organizations don’t expect. You send a direct mail piece and the donor goes to your website to make a contribution. You send an email asking an activist to send a message to his congresswoman and he views the message on his phone before going to bed but can’t see the links clearly enough to click and forgets it.

A fractured (and in some cases dissolved) news distribution system has completely altered citizen expectations of their role in news. People are not just recipients they are reporters (which is VERY different than journalists, we want to make clear and this isn’t necessarily a good change). And personal sharing of news and thoughts can happen quickly, with a large audience and impact networks beyond just immediate friends and family.

The 24 hour news cycle and social networks that are always on mean that organizations must be on their game at all times. They are also being asked to engage directly with activists, donors, media and community leaders in ways most never envisioned just five or ten years ago. Transparency is de rigeur. Financial statements and 990s are online for all to see. Staff, volunteers and just plain outsiders are blogging, Facebooking and tweeting about issues and organizations in ways that can’t be controlled.

In the face of these and other dramatic shifts in the environment in which nonprofits operate, the only way forward is to create and truly support cultures of trust within organizations. What this looks like will vary, of course, for every organization. All have different leaders, histories and missions. And “trust” is not the same as turning people loose to do what they will without guidance, leadership, plans and support.

What trust looks like and how to create and engage a trust-driven culture is itself a big topic. One for a future post. For now, we encourage you to reflect on that state of trust within your own organization and teams. Define it. Talk about it. If you are a manager, leader or staff member don’t stew on it. Bring it up. Hash it out. Take steps to make it happen. It may not be easy but the result will be more creative, innovative and successful teams that move past reacting and push organizations forward.

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