By: Laurie Hanson
Common to every successful nonprofit organization is a Board of Directors that communicates well with each other and the Executive Director. Achieving this degree of communication requires dedication and hard work by the organization and its Board. However, the payoff can result in an organization that effectively fulfills its mission, exceeds the goals set for itself, and performs well above other organizations of its type.
There are several key elements that are necessary to build a Board that communicates well including, but not limited to, respecting peers, honest communication, focus on the issues, respect of each other’s time, and methods of communication.
First and foremost, board members need to have respect for each other and the Executive Director. Respect can be built through formal processes, such as board retreats, or through less formal means, such as gathering for dinner or drinks. A large part of earning respect for one another is simply to get to know each other.
In order to have successful board meetings and resulting actions, board members and the Executive Director need to communicate in an honest way, allowing for an open discussion. This is important for raising concerns, asking questions, and discussing subjects where there is disagreement amongst the board members. Honest, open communication helps the organization to avoid legal problems and ethical dilemmas, and promotes constructive dialog about difficult subjects and strategic issues. If this is a challenge, check out resources like the book Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, and Heen) or Shari Harley’s blog, Candid Culture.
Focus on the Issues
It can be difficult to separate an issue from the messenger. However, keep in mind that the messenger, if communicating in an honest manner, is only raising the issue because he feels it’s significant to the organization. Often times, the messenger has expertise in the issue that’s being raised and has experience in dealing with others who’ve not properly dealt with this particular issue. For example, if a board member is an intellectual property lawyer, she may spot a trademark issue with the photos being used on your marketing materials. Focusing on the issue and not the person raising the issue keeps the board on track for good governance and furthering the mission.
Be honest about the expected time commitment when recruiting. If it’s known that the position will require five hours per week, don’t try to sell it as less than that. Recruiting board members through deception of any type will result in board members who are resentful toward the organization. This is not a good way to start a relationship! Also, remember that board members are busy people. In addition to their responsibility of serving the organization, many also have full-time jobs, children and/or parents that require their time, and other volunteer commitments. Be respectful by limiting the amount of communication to only what’s needed and limiting the time of day for contacting board members. Very few people appreciate a midnight call that’s anything short of an emergency.
Agree on (and Stick to) One Communication Method
There are many ways to communicate information with the Board. Emails, text messages, phone calls, and traditional mail are a few of those methods. Depending on the organization’s size, it may make sense to set up a portal through the organization’s website where board-related items can be posted. The board should come to a consensus on what its preferred communication method is, and stick to that method. This will help the Executive Director to develop a format and communication method that is consistent and relied upon by everyone involved. It is unrealistic to expect specific communication methods be used for each board member. Agreement on the method to use will allow for streamlining and reduce confusion.
Putting the above into practice will go a long way toward achieving and surpassing the organization’s goals for its mission and growth. It will result in a strong governing board that works toward the same goal and delivers a cohesive message about the organization and the great work that it does.