Respect, Communication and Documentation: What Every Nonprofit Needs
I think it is safe to assume we all want to be happy in our work and feel like our efforts are valued and appreciated by others. But it isn’t always easy for companies to find the intersection of structure and freedom that allow staff and volunteers to flourish.
Most for-profit companies have a vertical organizational structure (Figure 1). The staffing chart is generally wide at the bottom, representing the majority of the company’s labor force—everyone from sales representatives to machine operators. The level of responsibility and authority increases with the organizational altitude. It takes detailed policies, documented standard operating procedures and structured channels of communication for the corporate machine to run smoothly.
However, smooth is not an adjective you often hear to describe corporate structure and operations, regardless of industry. There are often communication barriers, differences of opinion, ego-induced personality clashes and varying work styles that lead to suboptimal workflow, communication and inter-employee relations.
Nonprofit organizational structures have a number of additional layers, increasing the chance for miscues and information bottlenecks.
One look at Figure 2 and you can see that the additional relationships and reporting structures in nonprofit operations could complicate even the simplest of tasks. When we start with staff and add in boards of directors, whose members rotate through every few years (executive positions likely rotate annually or every two years); committees of the board; and other types of committees, such as events, community ambassadors and program delivery, we’ve created a web sticky enough to snag communication at every turn. That is why it is exceptionally important for nonprofit organizations to have strong cultures of communication that begin at the leadership level.
Over the course of consulting with and training for nonprofits, I have seen both good and subpar examples of organizational communication. I’ve witnessed the chaos and motivational voids that can form as a result of nonexistent or insufficient policies and leadership that fails to model best-practice behavior.
Here are just a few examples of the havoc that can come from disjointed interpersonal and interdepartmental communication:
1. Executive teams meet and make decisions. It is each executive’s responsibility to communicate the decisions and follow-up actions to their respective teams. Executives A and B do exactly that. Executive C goes on to their next meeting, never sharing the information with their staff. Executive C’s team is then out of the loop and is more likely to be put in a situation where they have to make decisions and act based upon incomplete or outdated information. Additionally, Executives A and B are unaware that Executive C’s team does not have the information that is vital to their performance and reprimand the team C members for resultant “mistakes.”
- Leadership and communication skills training for the executives.
- Solicitation of feedback and frequent evaluation of the information-sharing process and its effectiveness.
- Documented policies and procedures and associated performance evaluations.
2. The current chair of the board of directors has a different vision from their predecessor of how certain things will work. There was not a documented strategic plan or standard operating procedures that outline the direction and processes the organization had been following, so the new board chair does not have any parameters to work within. This scenario often results in a change of strategy for program delivery or fundraising every few years, which then affects how programs are delivered, the way fundraising is conducted and the continuity of work.
- Documented and board-approved strategic plan that is well-known by staff and regularly used to check progress.
- Documented board policies that include succession planning and tools to discourage change of strategic direction with each new board chair’s tenure.
3. Sample Charity has a few very strong personalities on a committee. One of the volunteers running the committee does not value the organization’s staff and, in fact, believes the organization doesn’t need paid staff. This shows itself in varying degrees—from lack of willingness to work with staff to the willful undermining of the staff with board members and donors. Sample Charity’s executive director is aware that some committee members are treating staff poorly and hindering their ability to be successful, but thinks it will “work itself out.” The executive director doesn’t want to get too involved, because they don’t want to lose board members or volunteers. The result is staff members who feel marginalized and unimportant.
- Leadership and communication skills training for the board of directors and executive staff.
- Training on board responsibilities and expectations.
- Appropriate documentation of board and committee policies and procedures.
- Committee chair and member job descriptions.
- An executive director dedicated to treating employees and volunteers well, and to creating a good working environment for everyone.
4. Staff members from the program side of the house think fundraising staff are overpaid for an easy job. Some fundraisers consider their job more important than service delivery. The two departments tend to avoid each other and communication and resource sharing are sporadic at best.
- Team-building and interdepartmental communications training that illustrates the complexity and value of each job function.
- Job shadowing sessions that allow employees to see what others’ jobs entail, resulting in increased empathy on both sides.
- Communication skills training, which provides the tools necessary for more effective interactions and encourages employees to accept that people have different ways of communicating and conducting themselves.
- Documented processes for information sharing.
These examples are not unusual. Communication, strategy and planning, and interpersonal interactions combine to guide nonprofit operations. When they break down, it is like the steering wheel breaking loose from the steering column of a car; the results can be wildly erratic and may end in a fiery crash.
The implementation of two key elements can help.
1. Continuous Feedback
Create an environment in which feedback is “allowed” to feed up the organizational chart as well as down.
- If there are specific communication channels preferred by the board or executives, make sure everyone knows them… not just the people who created them.
2. Checks and Balances
Everyone has different communication styles, ways of working, preferred ways to organize. Knowing this, it is up to leaders of the organization to create an atmosphere where people can be successful. One person on the staff or board cannot be allowed to “hijack” operations, because their strong personality can overpower others.
- To do this, managers and leaders at every level must create ways to take the temperature within departments, teams and committees, and then react accordingly.
Whether the organization engages in periodic formal communication skills training (like DiSC personality profiles or Franklin Covey programs), conducts surveys to uncover points of communication breakdowns, trains leaders on how to serve and support people at all levels of the organization or all of the above, it is important to do something. And not just once, but on a continual basis.
It takes an investment of time, money and energy to create an organizational culture that values people at all levels, documents and follows strategy, and monitors the effectiveness of inter- and intra-departmental communications. Investments in these areas, however, will cut down on employee turnover, dysfunction on boards of directors and breakdowns in workflow and performance.
Treat people well, communicate openly and intentionally, create channels for feedback and monitoring, and document, document, document. These are the things that make for a healthy nonprofit organization.
Editor's Note: The author is not endorsing any product or service mentioned in this article.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a Florida-based training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a graduate certificate in teaching and learning. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.