WES Blog — On Transparency & Trust

In the past year, the company I run took a big step: we decided to open up our email process to be nearly fully transparent to each other. This meant that any employee could see any email sent or received—internally, or to our clients, with a few exceptions that we outlined to everyone.

It seemed like a radical idea at first: thatany staff could see any email. But as a social-justice oriented firm, I was interested in how it might address some power dynamics within our team. As I introduced it, I was comforted that a similar experiment had taken place at other companies who raved about it. We set many ground rules, and the practice soon became the norm. Since then I’ve realized that our entire team has benefitted. Not only did it increase and speed up our team’s learning and knowledge, it created a historical archive. It helped equalize some power differentials within our team by knocking down “access to information” dynamics.

But most importantly, it has hugely increased transparency, and in doing so, built trust amongst our team.

So I was really pleased when the WES Board of Trustees began discussing a plan to make public the individual emails we exchange with community members. But let me back up a bit.

Creating trust within the WES community – and between the Board of Trustees and the community — has been a value that I have experienced and appreciated since I joined the Board nearly three years ago. Building trust in any community is an ongoing and multi-faceted practice, not something that is “achieved” once and for all.

As trust in institutions grows shaky in our broader society, what can communities, and especially their leaders, do to increase it?

In practice, it can be tough to grow trust within a community. If you read any recommendations about engendering trust, you quickly learn that listening, communication, and transparency are at the top of the list. Healthy communications involves being able to balance confidentiality and disclosure appropriately and being able to communicate as quickly and fully as possible.

The WES Board of Trustees has a policy of “speaking with one voice.” This means that before any communications come from the board, even to a single individual, all Trustees have a chance to weigh in; and once we agree, we all do our best to communicate in alignment with that message. 

We have several other practices that increase our ability to listen and communicate with the WES community. Of course, board meetings are open to our community, that’s pretty straightforward, along with publishing meeting agendas and minutes. We hold twice-yearly “linkages,” the equivalent of structured listening sessions, to ensure we are hearing from the community. There are other forms of communication as well—the email listserv, the Facebook group, and a monthly blog post from the Board. There’s no single way to communicate that is best for everyone, which is why we have created many avenues over the years.

And over the last few months we decided to take transparency one step further by creating a new policy to make all email communications to and from the board public to our community. Our hope is that it will create one more layer of transparency and open communications within our community so that anyone can have a window into conversations with the board among individual community members, as well as a historical archive of those conversations. We are working hard to inform everyone of the policy and to implement it within the next few weeks. Stay tuned for more details as we roll it out.

To paraphrase the UUA Congregational Life staff group, part of being in community is to speak and hear each other’s truths in love, and to help one another be accountable toward the community. We hope this new step will increase accountability and transparency in all directions and we look forward to your feedback.


Margaret Conway, Board Member

& the Board of Trustees