Board communication can make or break the success of a nonprofit. This is especially true today, when so many boards are meeting remotely. Establishing good communication patterns and rules will help with leadership transitions, crisis management, hiring, and fundraising.
A friend recently told me a story. He was surprised to receive an email removing him from a board for failure to show up for meetings. The surprise was that he thought he had rotated off the board over a year prior. Obviously, there was no exit interview, or handing off of responsibilities, or formal goodbye. For over a year, no one questioned why he wasn’t at meetings. Clearly, he was embarrassed and the Board missed out on a year of valuable service from him, or from a replacement.
This level of total miscommunication is rare. But, it’s certainly not unheard of. We almost all know what bad communication feels like, especially when we’re on the receiving end. But, what does good board communication look like?
Ask yourself, which of these lists best describes your Board.
Good Board Communication
In a healthy board:
- The responsibilities and expectations of the board are clearly defined.
- Board members receive board training.
- There is an annual review or self-assessment to make sure the board is operating well.
- The Board is involved in developing a strategic plan.
- The Board holds regular meetings and allows everyone appropriate time to speak.
- Organization staff present to the board.
- The Board asks questions of the Executive Director.
- The Executive Director relies on the Board for support.
- Decisions are made in a transparent manner.
- Board members regularly engage with the community on behalf of the organization.
- The Board has relationships with multiple staff members.
- Board members regularly attend meetings and participate.
Bad Board Communication
In an unhealthy board:
- Only one person speaks at most meetings.
- There is no time for questions.
- Disagreement is discouraged.
- The meeting agenda is distributed at the last minute.
- People are unsure as to how, or why, decisions are made.
- The phrase “well, we’ve always done it this way” comes up a lot.
- Passive/Aggressive comments are the norm.
- Sarcasm is frequently used.
- Board members are reluctant to offer opinions.
- The staff and the Board operate in completely separate silos with no communication.
- Board members often miss meetings, or are distracted during them.
Obviously, missing and bad communications have a lot of overlap. But, where bad communications often leads to hurt feelings and discord, missing communications just leads to confusion. In a board with missing communications:
- There is no agenda for meetings.
- There is not a regular, reliable time for meetings.
- Board members are unaware of initiatives at the organization.
- There is no strategic plan.
- It is difficult to recruit people to the Board.
- Board members are unwilling to help or participate, frustrating staff.
If you feel like your Board is suffering from bad or missing communications, consider these tactics to begin repairing the divide.
Hire a Board Trainer
Bringing someone in from the outside can often help re-establish good communication practices. An outside observer can be both objective and empathetic in diagnosing the problems and suggesting solutions.
Recommit and if Necessary, Redefine, Your Mission
Oftentimes, poor Board communications are a sign of a larger problem within an organization. If no one is quite sure what the mission of the organization is, or if there’s a difference of opinion about the mission, it can lead to confusion and miscommunication. If it’s been awhile since you’ve looked at your mission statement, consider revisiting it and making sure it’s still relevant. It might be helpful to include your mission statement at the top of every Board meeting agenda. This way, you ensure it’s top of mind.
Concentrate on Transparency
Perhaps the most important step to establishing good communications is to be clear and honest about problems. If people don’t trust that they are receiving complete information, they will be equally withholding.
The lack of diversity, in terms of race, age, and gender, of nonprofit boards is well-known. Embracing inclusivity does not just mean trying to recruit board members of different generations and races. Inclusivity means learning what communication styles work with different groups, and attempting to communicate equally across barriers. By embracing inclusivity as a value, you will not only increase diversity in your board, you’ll learn new and improved communication skills.
Today’s difficult environment requires a lot from nonprofits and their boards. Ensuring that your board communicates well with itself and the organization can help ensure the health of your organization.