Communication in the Nonprofit Organization

This week I was teaching a class on leadership development and an issue was raised about the nature of communication in nonprofit organizations. Is there (or should there be) a difference between communication in the world of nonprofit organizations as compared to other sectors? The values and culture of the third sector mandate a style and form of communication for nonprofit organization.

When we speak about human service organizations, whether in the fields of health, education or welfare, we are placing an emphasis on the agency’s concern for the quality of life of the people who are the end users of the services provided. It does not matter if the focus is on patients in a hospital, students in a school or clients at the Jewish family service because each of the organizations represents basic values, for example, respecting the dignity of the individual. It is not enough to articulate the values in written material or public presentations. They should be integrated into the way the nonprofit functions as well as the services delivered to the community.

We are all aware of the importance of the way an agency responds to written forms of communication, as well as, the way people are received when they either walk into the agency or call on the telephone. The first impression is often a lasting one and defines the organization’s culture to perspective clients and members. Often emphasis is placed on how the receptionist answers the telephone as the first public face of the organization.

Nonprofit organizations are generally committed to ensuring the community is well aware of their intention to be responsive to requests for information and service. One of the hallmarks on the communication scale is a client receiving assistance, even if the agency cannot provide the needed service. They should have a sense that their needs have been understood with a referral to the appropriate service. When a person makes a request of human service organization and the response is limited to “We do not provide that service” then the person leaves feeling they have not been helped.

Today most professionals would agree that an effort should be made to assist the person. We would like people to leave the agency or close the phone with a feeling that the organization attempted to provide some appropriate service. The image and reputation of the nonprofit is enhanced when people feel staff of the nonprofit was listening to their request and aided them in finding the right address for the service(s) needed.

Parallel to a discussion of the communication between the agency and the community there is also the issue of intra-agency communication. The nature and style of communication between the volunteer leadership and the staff, as well as, among the staff can represent the values of the organization. The communication between and among staff members has to embody the commitment to develop the leadership skills of the nonprofit’s staff.

Implementing open communication requires planning and an investment in the cultivating and involving the staff in the decision-making processes. It means reaching out and eliciting the thoughts and ideas of the staff prior to making final decisions. Yes, there are times when either policy or practice decisions have to be made by the CEO or other executive staff. However, the way they are implemented also communicates to what extent the staff’s perspectives are valued.

There is a continuum of forms of communication that can strengthen the connection among the staff components regardless of the hierarchy in the administrative structure. For example, when a decision has to be implemented then the CEO might consult with the staff. She would let them know there has to be a change in policy or practice and invite their thinking about the best way to implement the change instead of just announcing it.

A second level is when an issue confronts the organization and an appropriate response is required. The CEO communicates her trust in the staff. A work group composed of staff members is asked to consider the challenge and to suggest possible scenarios to respond to the challenge. It is clear from the outset that the group’s role is limited to making a recommendation and it will be considered by the CEO. This process not only involves the staff but also communicates the value placed on their professional perspectives to finding a possible solution to the issue under discussion.

A third level is when the CEO empowers the staff both to study the issue and to implement the response they develop. The staff is not always in the position to assume responsibility from beginning to end. When they have the opportunity there is an implicit message in this approach about value placed on the staff.

Open communication among the nonprofit’s hierarchical positions validates the worth placed on the involvement of the staff and ultimately strengthens the organization. The more attention that is given to not only what is said but to the way it said, the greater the possibility of developing a strong a cohesive staff component in the nonprofit organization. Perhaps the key is in understanding that no matter who is in the administrative position there is a greater chance of success when there is open communication.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.