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Poor Internal Communication and the Board (Part 3 of 3)

In the first part of this article, I described the consequences of poor communication. In part two, I suggested an approach to assessing the current state of communication in your organization. Now we’ll open the bag of tricks for improving communication. When you look inside, you’ll find a lot of possibilities. Some will be extremely useful to you and your organization. Some will be absolutely irrelevant, for reasons of personality, organizational culture, practicality, etc. Pick and choose to meet your needs. The important thing, once you have done that, is to get started!

Convince Others That A Problem Exists

Trick #1: Speak up.
In a culture where people pretty much keep to themselves, it often takes an outside force (in this case, you) to open their eyes. This is because the people inside the culture not only aren’t in the habit of sharing information; they also don’t know what information they ought to be sharing; and they haven’t a clue as to how to do so. They need someone to zero in on what’s not being communicated and help them understand why changing that habit is important. Depending on your personality, this can be either exhilarating or terrifying.

Trick #2: Be fearless.
Whenever someone rocks the boat, someone else is bound to become defensive or critical. Just remember — and keep remembering — that your purpose is not to avoid criticism but to act in the best interests of the organization.

Trick #3: Be political (but in a good way).
Figure out a non-threatening way and setting to state the problem. Be sure you don’t place blame on any one person or people. Instead, embed your criticism in a larger message: you’ve identified an issue that is holding your wonderful organization back from being even more effective, and you want the board to begin dealing with it. Then, summarize your analysis based on the self-assessment you have completed

Time your introduction of the subject. The new business portion of a board meeting is not the place to surprise your colleagues with this news. Take the time to build a coalition, one or two people at a time, and then, as a group, have the subject placed on the next agenda. Then, your group can advocate for change, rather than you, a lone wolf.

If you’ve done your homework and made a convincing presentation, further discussion will lead to a general agreement that your observations are correct and that something needs to be done. Depending on the size and culture of your organization, this could be as informal as a set of decisions on the spot or as structured as the creation of an ad-hoc committee of board and staff members to make recommendations key staff members by a certain deadline.

Take the Lead in Shaping a Plan

Trick #4: Reinforce the message that leadership must lead.
Make it clear that you seek a better flow of information throughout the organization, and you advocate that the board mandate and embrace such change. If leadership does not embrace change immediately and definitively, nobody else will.

Tricks #5 and #6: Use your assessment as the starting point. Aim for a workable plan rather than a pipe dream.
When you completed your assessment, you came up with a list of the communication problems you perceived in the organization. Have your team set them in priority order and come up with practical ways of addressing each one. You don’t need a volume the size of War and Peace here; all you need are some basic guidelines and, subsequently, a buy-in from everyone concerned. If you’re going to get that buy-in, make your guidelines as short, simple, and easy to follow as possible. And don’t forget to build in mechanisms for reassessing the situation after three to six months, and at regular (perhaps annual) intervals thereafter, so that you can make further adjustments if they are necessary.

Trick #7: Be aware of red herrings.
Don’t be thrown off course by assertions that many issues should be secret, or that no one will do what you are discussing, or that having every person in on every fact will be too cumbersome. Remember that internal communication is the lubrication for an organization that functions well. Not everyone has to know everything, of course, but each volunteer and staff member should certainly be aware of information that affects his or her responsibilities or job performance.

Trick #8: Keep the board and staff leadership invested.
Update them on its progress. Seek their advice on any particularly touchy issues. Do anything you can to keep their interest and excitement high, so that when implementation time arrives they will be enthusiastic.

Implement That Plan!

Trick #9: Implementation doesn’t happen by itself. People need preparation to change.
Have each person figure out how he or she is going to adopt the new procedures to his or her workday. Be a source of unlimited positive feedback to those who succeed, and determine how to deal with those who don’t.

Trick #10: Success breeds success — but demands attention.
As stated earlier, you will be coming back to the plan after three to six months, and on a regular basis thereafter, to fine-tune it. The board may also want to set up an ongoing internal communication committee to address issues that arise between scheduled assessments.

I can’t predict how your organization will resolve its communication challenges. However, I do know that if you and your colleagues stay committed to communication, your organization will be all the more healthy and effective — and that, ultimately, is the goal of every board member.

Communication Strategies Primer

Here are some communication strategies you can choose from. Chances are that your organization probably uses all of them now, but I hope my comments on each will help you place them in the best context for your needs and the personalities of the board and staff.

To state the obvious, face-to-face contact is always good. Regularly scheduled meetings or lunches are effective. Be sure there is an agenda and that specific people have the jobs of keeping the conversation on track and creating and circulating a follow-up memo that summarizes the meeting. For in-between conversations, face-to-face meetings may be difficult to arrange, so you may have to rely on other methods.

Next best is probably phone contact, by means of regularly scheduled, one-on-one conversations or conference calls. Again, be sure there are an agenda, leader to keep the meeting on track, and a follow-up memo that gets circulated. In many organizations, a lot of informal communication is handled by phone. Be sure there’s an agreement that people will respond to messages as quickly as possible, so people are not left hanging. By the same token, for a multi-tasker who loves to put people on hold, phone calls may not be the best strategy.

Then there’s e-mail. To use e-mail effectively, you need to be extremely well organized and be very careful about your writing. Put together a complete circulation list of who needs to be reached, and be sure that everyone involved knows to hit the reply all button when responding. Pull all your thoughts together before you hit the send button; there is nothing more infuriating or counterproductive than six emails on the same subject from one person, sent within minutes of each other, each with a different question or bit of information. And do remember the adage that you should not write anything in an email that you would not be comfortable shouting out in a room full of people. You never know who’s going to hit the forward button, sending your comments on to the exact people who should not be seeing them.

Finally, there is the good old hard-copy memorandum. In larger organizations, memos are still the method of choice for disseminating information. They’re concise, authoritative, tangible, and can’t be accidentally deleted. They’re great for communicating or summarizing important facts, and they are the method of choice for creating a paper trail, if that’s important. However, they’re useless if people don’t read them, and they are a slow means of engaging in actual dialogue.

About the Contributor: Jane Tennen

Jane is  Executive Director of Development at John Jay College, a college of The City University of New York. She provides strategic vision and leadership for all fundraising, alumni relations, and stewardship activities during an exciting time of growth and expansion for the College. Reporting to the Vice President of Marketing and Development, she works closely with the President and other senior leaders of the College.

Jane became a nonprofit professional in 1974 and a consultant in 1986.  In prior positions, she played a lead creative role in more than 200 successful fundraising publications, proposals, and speeches in NYU’s then pacesetting $100 million campaign. She secured the first arts grant at The Door, a leading New York City youth agency and the first corporate grant for an important postmodern dance company, whose board I also helped reorganize and expand.

In her native Philadelphia in the 1970s, Jane helped establish two experimental video series, was involved in two international film festivals, a 90-seat cinemathèque, and an independent movie theatre, and facilitated the first grant for a gallery-performance space.

Jane have served on the Montclair State University School of the Arts Advisory Committee and many other boards, panels, and committees, and have been listed in Who’s Who in America.  She was writing director for the second New York City Kids’ Culture Catalog, described by New York Magazine as “terse and beguiling,” and contributes to the CharityChannel Press online journals Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review and Nonprofit Consulting Review.

Jane received her MFA in nonprofit theatre administration from Yale Drama School and her BA in classical studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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