Healthy Board/Staff Communications : Reasonable, Good-Faith Principles to Live By

Healthy Board/Staff Communications : Reasonable, Good-Faith Principles to Live By
Winter 2016 by Julie Edsforth

Healthy Board/Staff Communications

A google search on board/staff communications will generate literally millions of hits.  From best practices to worst case scenarios, there is no shortage of advice to be had. I can understand why. Bring together a group of deeply passionate individuals, have them embrace big goals with the potential to heal the world in one way or another, have a loose and rather dynamic understanding of roles across the team, and (this is the kicker!) generally under-resource them – and you’ve just created the perfect conditions for misunderstanding, or worse…suspicion, resentment, insubordination, termination or resignation.  Ugh! 

Too often guidelines and written policies about board/staff communications are in response to something that goes wrong:  an executive director feels undermined when her senior director makes direct contact with a board member and sensitive salary information is shared; a board member thinks the meeting with the fundraising director is about an upcoming event, but it turns to a complaint regarding a decision the ED made about a longstanding program.  Procedures and policies (personnel policies and grievance policies, for example) are born out of this responsive place, and while they very well may address the need for clarified boundaries and rules, they often don’t move beyond this prescriptive and rather formulaic level. Or worse, they lead to a controlling culture that leaves people feeling stifled and untrusted.  I have yet to meet someone who appreciates this response.

What is a nonprofit to do?  While formal processes, policies, and rules are important, they aren’t sufficient.  A thriving board/staff team environment – one that makes it possible for a nonprofit to gain serious traction on their mission, to benefit from the full array of assets and perspectives on the team, and from which excellent communications flow – requires normalizing and de-formalizing simple, reasonable, well-intentioned day-to-day interactions between and across the entire team. In other words, rather than focus on what to avoid, “be the change that you wish to see in the world” (thank you, Gandhi.) 

Below are a very few simple principles of healthy and informal board/staff communication in organizations – aimed at maximizing the function, impact, creativity, and contribution of the entire team.    

  • Share expertise and connections for the sake of the organization.  It should be totally fine, and indeed encouraged, for any staff member to contact any board member (or the other way around) who they think might have useful expertise, connections, or perspective in performing their job or duties.  It should also be fine and encouraged to offer unsolicited input and feedback so long as both understand it is input and feedback only, not a directive.  “Hey, (says the board member) I found this newsletter article about our new program confusing, thought you might want to know, since maybe some of our donors might find it confusing, too.”  OR “Hey, (says the communications manager)I’d love to get your feedback on our new youth tutoring program brochure given your expertise in communications and marketing”.
     
  • Share information that enables effective ambassadorship.  It should be totally fine, and indeed encouraged, for any staff member to give any board member information about a program or other organizational element that would allow the board member to be a more effective representative for the organization and its mission.  “Hey, (says the board member) I have some questions about our legislative strategy this session and want to get up to speed.”  OR “Hey, (says the staff member) I hear you’ll be seeing Anastasia the donor next week at the Blah Blah Convention. I’d love to brief you on our capital campaign progress so you can give her an update”.
     
  • Get to know each other. Trust is an essential ingredient in any organization working to its highest capacity, but it’s hard to trust your fellow board or staff members if you barely know them. When was the last time the full team was brought together? Sometimes I ask this of my clients and the answer is “once a year at our annual retreat”. Relationships based in trust and respect require spending time together – working on a project or sharing an experience.  Create opportunities for board and staff members to get know each other in substantial and meaningful ways (…move beyond “two truths and a lie”…) that result in the team knowing the unique skills, capabilities, experience, and connections each has to offer.
     
  • Keep ED’s in the loop, but no bottlenecks. It’s silly to bottleneck the flow of information by requiring all interaction to be monitored and/or controlled by the Executive Director.  Sure, informing EDs of meetings that are taking place makes good sense most of the time, but in healthy organizations where there is trust and goodwill, prior permission shouldn’t be needed.  If you find yourself wanting to restrict communications or require prior permission, address the source of mistrust, don’t create new rules about who gets to talk to whom.
     
  • Maintain healthy boundaries.  If ever a direct interaction between a board member and a staff member seems headed in the direction of concerns about a program or strategy or decision, then both parties, but especially the board member, must put on the brakes and ask.  “Hey, (thinks the Board member) is this something I should be discussing with the ED (or Board Chair)?”
     
  • Be intentional about living these principles day-to-day.  Create regular opportunities for dialogue and exploration of the principles you want to have present in your organization.  Write down what you agree upon.   Share your principles at new board and staff orientations.  From time to time, take a step back and ask yourselves how it’s going. Continually identify ways to create the optimal conditions for healthy, trusting, reasonable interactions between the board and staff.

In summary, while board/staff communications can be tricky (and board members especially need to be mindful of the power dynamics between board and staff) in healthy organizations, reasonable people should be able to apply these principles freely, exercising both good judgment on their own part and assumption of good intent on the part of others. 

It can take time to get to this point and if the organization isn’t starting from a point of much trust or familiarity between board and staff it won’t happen overnight.  But it can be extremely helpful as you pursue your mission, especially in small organizations where the staff team is often smaller than the board, for interactions across the full team of people to optimize for the maximum contribution of ideas, skills, and expertise. 

I’m pretty sure there’s a diversity of opinion on what is reasonable and recommended when it comes to unfettered board/staff communications.  I welcome reader responses and perspectives!

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