Last weekend I was contacted independently by three different volunteers with Recovering From Religion, each one at varying degrees of discomfort about a letter they had just received from the board of the organization. Two of them shared the text of that letter with me because it contained language disparaging both my work and my writing, and because they felt they were receiving contradictory messages from the board about matters that have come to light over the last few weeks, and it was upsetting them.
On the one hand, the board has been assuring their supporters and volunteers that transparency is of the utmost importance to them (as it should be for a nonprofit organization such as theirs), but on the other hand they disclosed in that letter how restricted they are by various nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), including at least one which is so secretive that they weren’t even supposed to acknowledge that it exists.
Why a board would agree to such a thing is beyond me, but this disclosure was repeated again on a much more public forum—their own website—just this past Thursday:
In the professional world, NDAs serve a valuable purpose, often to protect information, sometimes as a negotiating tool, and sometimes simply as leverage or assurance that all parties refrain from disparaging the other. In a minority of cases, even discussing the existence of the NDA is a violation of the NDA. RfR is restricted by such an agreement.
Evidently at Recovering From Religion, even their NDAs have their own NDAs.
Forgive me, I just don’t understand this at all. Maybe I’m just naive or something. I know I’m just a writer and a school teacher, and maybe this is more common in the non-profit world than I previously understood. But all of this seems to be taking us in the opposite direction of where we want to go.
In my super-long post the other day about the escalating conflict between the board and me, I argued that excessive secrecy among organizations across the atheist movement serves to create an environment ripe for taking advantage of people. The board’s letter to their volunteers charges that my post was full of lies, and yet it does so right after illustrating exactly what I was trying to say in the first place. To top things off, their letter ended with a reminder that each of the volunteers signed an NDA of their own before they could even become volunteers, so they aren’t allowed to speak about any of this to anyone.
“We know you’ve heard it said that we’re overly secretive, but it’s lies, you hear? All LIES! Now don’t say a word about this to anyone.”**
The problem there, of course, is that I spent months communicating and working with their volunteers, gathering feedback, updating contact information, and working to raise the level of visibility of their groups so that they could continue providing the services they were created to provide. Unlike the general public, these are the people who know first-hand that I was doing the things I was hired to do for them because I was doing it with them.
Isn’t This a Bit Much?
So what exactly is the nature of this nondisclosure agreement to which all volunteers had to agree? It’s included in their policy manual, and after you read it you should have a better idea of why I never agreed to adhere to it.* It’s quite comprehensive:
Recovering From Religion requires strict confidentiality be maintained with respect to all information obtained by staff concerning the organization and the clients and others they serve. No volunteer may disclose any information, under any circumstances, obtained in the course of their RR position to any third parties without prior written consent from RR͛s Executive Director. Staff members assume sole legal liability for unauthorized disclosure. This includes but is not limited to information pertaining to financial status and operations such as budget information, donations of money or gifts in kind, salary information, any/all information pertaining to clients, staff or other volunteers, demographics, trade secrets, and methodology.
You may not disclose confidential or private information, client information, or information specific to the operations of Recovering From Religion. Confidential information includes things such as details about our software (including any databases maintained by Recovering From Religion), current or potential programs or projects, anything not yet announced to the public, future programs, projects, or product or campaign schedules, financial information, and trade secrets of any nature. Employees and volunteers are encouraged to ask questions for clarification in regard to any issues related to confidentiality. Failure to comply with the confidentially [sic] policies of the organization may result in disciplinary actions, up to and including the immediate dismissal of the volunteer.
Employees and/or volunteers of Recovering From Religion are restricted from discussing these same matters to third parties for a period of 36 months after termination of service with the organization.
This is just too much for me. Does any organization need to place restrictions this comprehensive on absolutely everyone who signs up to work with them? I can understand a need for privacy among the people served by the organization, especially since so many of them are “closeted” in their atheism, unable to let anyone around them know where they stand about their religious beliefs. I know the dangers of being “outed” by other people as well as anybody, believe me.
But this goes way beyond respecting the personal privacy of callers on a hotline, members in a support group, or clients receiving therapy. This seems excessive, and I’m suggesting that something should be done about it.
I want to see something positive coming out of this conflict between the board of RFR and me. We have a contractual dispute between us for which an appropriate channel for resolution exists. They have made multiple assurances that they intend to pursue that course of action, and I welcome them to do so. They have also said that they do not wish to have our contract “litigated in the court of public opinion,” because that is not the appropriate channel. I would like to believe that they really mean that as well, although in their very next announcement they disclosed that they have sought the help of another blogger in order to ask him to investigate the issue.
Because bloggers like me are the right people to be settling legal matters like contractual disputes, right?
And Now for Something Constructive…
I’ve been asked what I would need to see in order to regain trust in the leadership of Recovering From Religion. In all honesty, our contractual dispute need not factor into that for me at all. If I didn’t fulfill the contract, then that matter should be dealt with through the proper channels, resulting in whichever consequences the proper authorities see fit. If the proper authorities do not rule in my favor, then the matter of the contract itself will have been settled, and that will be the end of that.
But that’s not all that’s at stake, here. The larger issue is that I am not willing to throw my support behind this organization again until I see a more consistent commitment to transparency starting with a major overhaul of their confidentiality expectations for volunteers. Someone should really go through this policy manual and eliminate the excessive demands for secrecy which they place upon any and every person who desires to work with their organization. They should also communicate with their current volunteers and assure them that this excessive burden will not remain on them because it’s really not necessary. It’s frankly a little intimidating to them. Perhaps it was originally cut-and-pasted from some other manual anyway, and just never got trimmed down when it should have been (what “trade secrets” would they even have?). I don’t know.
And again, I can understand a need for confidentiality when handling confidential phone calls and support meetings of a private nature, but must there really be secrecy around things like donations, budgets, and salaries, too? Doesn’t it send up a red flag whenever an organization enshrouds its every move with this much cloak-and-dagger language? I don’t believe it’s necessary, and I would like to see that eliminated from the requirements of the staff and volunteers with the organization. Personally, I would advise the volunteers to begin demanding that particular change themselves from within the organization, assuming they have any way to freely communicate with each other within their operational setup.
I wonder, do they even have that? I no longer know. While I was still working with them, I ensured that there was a means of communication for group leaders to stay in touch with each other but I was informed this past weekend that the group was dismantled in order to merge them all onto a different platform. Perhaps that new platform contains its own way for volunteers to communicate directly with each other and with the board about things such as this. Perhaps it does not. It needs to, though.
I can think of a number of other things I’d like to see happen (and a number of pointed questions I’d like to see answered) before I’d be willing to endorse RFR again, but this in itself would be a significant start. This movement needs a whooooole lot more transparency, and I don’t mean just saying that you want it even while telling people to keep their mouths shut.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
* Update: I’ve just been informed that while neither I nor RFR could previously find a record of me agreeing to the terms of the policy manual back when I was still a volunteer for them, after posting today’s post about the NDA they discovered that I did in fact agree to the terms of the manual as a volunteer back in 2014, which included the relevant nondisclosure paragraph. Not sure where that leaves any of this, given the questionable legality of restrictions this comprehensive, but I guess we’ll find out. From the wording of the NDA, it appears that essentially means that now they can officially terminate me as a volunteer.
** (Not an actual quote, in case you weren’t sure.)