How Nonprofits Can Share Difficult News With Staff

January 2021
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2020 provided nonprofits with two competing realities — a decline in donations and the need for ambitious pursuit of the mission. The result of these competing realities presents nonprofits with an internal communications challenge: delivering difficult news to employees on potential furloughs, hiring freezes or reductions to salaries and benefits while maintaining employee engagement with the organization’s vision, mission and goals.

A challenging reality

According to a June report from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, donations to nonprofits declined 6 percent in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period last year, forcing many nonprofits to cut budgets and furlough staff. 

Not surprisingly, the decline in charitable giving is tied closely to the U.S. unemployment rate — which spiked at 14.7 percent in April 2020, a level not seen since data collection began in 1948 — the Congressional Research Service reported in November. Unfortunately, these trends could continue into 2021 as pandemic precautions remain in place.  

At the same time, the need for nonprofits to engage with donors and supporters is more important than ever. Despite a global pandemic, mission-driven nonprofits must relentlessly pursue the organization’s vision, mission and goals to assure future sustainability. 

If the mission of the organization supports vulnerable and at-risk populations, then leaders may feel a moral imperative to push forward to provide services and benefits to clients even when financial realities require the organization to cut staff. 

For most nonprofits, pursuing the vision and achieving the mission requires that every person in the organization be fully engaged with the work. Why? Because employee engagement helps build the organization’s reputation. A strong reputation invites and attracts those outside the organization to be a part of the work. 

In other words, if staff are engaged, then those outside the organization take notice. They will want to support the nonprofit’s vision, mission and goals because they see the organization as a force for good in the world.

But what steps can nonprofits take when employee engagement is threatened by difficult circumstances, like those faced by many nonprofits in 2020? 

The communication challenge

Most nonprofit leaders place a high priority on ethical and transparent communication. Hopefully, your nonprofit is committed to sharing difficult news in a timely, transparent manner with the utmost concern for the impacts to individuals and their families. 

At the same time, most internal communications and human resources professionals realize that it is difficult for staff to be fully engaged with an organization’s vision, mission and goals when they receive difficult news regarding furloughs, hiring freezes, or reductions to salaries and benefits. 

Responsible leadership expects and prepares to address the questions and concerns that naturally result when difficult news is shared. Adhering to the following key principles and employing best practices in internal communications can help you share difficult news without jeopardizing employee engagement.

Key principles and best practices

1. Understand the impacts of change. The pace of change in 2020 has been astonishing. Many nonprofits have found it necessary to adjust business strategies and processes as they explore creative approaches to the unprecedented challenges wrought by the global pandemic. As a result, people and resources shift frequently. 

While this “agility” is a core cultural strength of successful organizations, leaders must understand the consequences to staff associated both with the pace of change and with the substance of change. What may appear to be a slight change from a leadership level can have a significant impact at working levels, whether those changes involve culture, job responsibilities, or salary and benefits. The pace of change and the substance of change must be managed well to maintain employee engagement. 

Best practice: Adopt a collaborative, cross-cutting approach to communicating change that includes review and input from internal communications and human resources professionals. Take time to thoroughly evaluate the necessity and timing of change. Develop a calendar to maintain a regular cadence for lower-level changes and a matrix to define the level from which various lower-level changes are communicated. Significant changes to overall organizational structure, senior leadership, and/or salaries and benefits require a formal communication plan developed with the full participation of leadership, human resources and internal communications.

2. Ensure consistent messaging across the organization. A responsibility of the internal communications function is to coordinate communication efforts across the organization and ensure consistent messaging and tone. It is equally important to avoid mixed messages from various sectors within the organization. In other words, a nonprofit cannot share difficult news from one office one day and expect employees to have a high level of enthusiasm for a new initiative announced from another office the next. 

Best practice: Consider the timing and substance of announcements. Understand the impacts to employee engagement that result from “bad news.” Leadership, human resources and internal communications must work closely together to address timing of messages and help ensure consistent messaging across offices. Limit out-of-cadence messages and frame cross-organizational messages to ensure consistency.

3. Live your values to build trust. Effective internal communication builds bridges instead of silos. Staff members must understand that senior leaders may often make difficult decisions. Leaders must understand and accept that staff members may ask hard questions about those decisions, especially if they result in personal or financial consequences to the employee and their families. We must assume positive intent among all parties and work together to build trust. 

Best practice: Live the organization’s values. Most nonprofits have clearly defined values. The core values of my organization are humility, accountability, integrity, transparency and sensitivity. When values are modeled by leaders, trust among staff grows. Then, when hard decisions are made, they are communicated and received from positions of trust. 

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