No Surprises: The Key to Good Communication

Good communication between professional staff and the board of directors; among the board members; or among the staff is very important in building and strengthening the non-profit organization. It is essential for the lines of reporting and communicating to be clear to all involved. The relationship between the executive and the president of the board is a unique one and requires the utmost openness and directness when working together to further the mission of the non-profit organization.

The executive of a non-profit agency often sets the tone when it comes to communication with board and staff members. The more open the communication the greater the chances of building and maintaining a strong sense of trust between and among everyone. It does not mean that everything is said to everyone. However, it does mean there are clear policies guiding the way communication is handled in the organization.

The most important aspect of any communication policy is “No Surprises.” Exactly what does this mean? Most service oriented non-profit agencies are continually interacting with the community and leadership in the community. Whether it is in the delivery of services or in the distribution of a publication people are always discussing what the agency does and how it does it. Occasionally there are difficult circumstances, unanticipated events, and possibly crises. When this happens it is essential for there to be a system for reporting to various people and for issuing a statement about the event.

The worst scenario is for the lay leadership of an organization to hear about a difficult situation from the media or from other people in the community. In terms of the board leadership the executive has to brief the key leadership of difficult situations or crises. When a system is in place then people are not “caught off guard”. They are not placed in a position of being confronted by facts or hearsay and being unable to respond from a knowledgeable point of view.

This also holds true for the executive in his relationship with staff members. When there is an incident involving agency clients, members, and/or staff there should be an immediate reporting to the executive who can then decide who should be informed and how to inform those people. The organization is in a position of being responsible for the handling of the situation.

Of course in times of crisis there may not be a resolution of the situation and there may need to be interim reporting. It is just as important to be handling the communication while something is happening as it is once the situation is resolved. In fact, sometimes the handling of the interim situation can be more important because it is a reflection of the professionalism of the organization and its ability to deal with unanticipated events and situations.

I would like to offer a few guidelines for intra-agency communications that can strengthen organization.

  1. The executive and president or chair of the board not only need to meet regularly and have a close working relationship but the executive must also keep the president informed of all situations so they can work together to formulate possible responses.
  2. The executive needs to inform the staff of the organization when there are unusual, difficult and potential damaging incidents involving the agency. In turn, the staff members need to keep the executive informed of all unusual occurrences and events. The staff has to be fully informed and to have a clear understanding of how they should respond to inquiries from people in the community and the media.
  3. One staff person should be appointed to respond to all inquiries. Depending on the resources and structure of the organization it can either be a staff member assigned as the spokesperson or the executive. In many communities it is often a lay leader who responds on behalf of the organization. In some cases there is a division of responsibility and if the issue concerns the professional services it is a staff person who addresses inquiries and if it concerns the board of directors or a board member then the president or chair speak on behalf of the agency.
  4. The clearer the policies guiding both internal and external communication the better equipped the agency will be to respond to situations, issues and crises. If your organization has such policies it is good to review them occasionally to confirm they are up to date and if there are no policies in place then you should consider forming an ad-hoc committee to consider developing guidelines for communicating with staff, board and the community.

We often take for granted our ability to respond to unanticipated situations and we do not think everything has to be spelled out in detail. Handling unanticipated situations is one of such item. Taking the time to develop specific policies and guidelines for communicating can save the organization from a public relations mishap or fiasco. It is well worth the effort to go through the process and to be clear as to who will do what when the time comes.

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