Create Better Communication Between Board and Staff Members

By: Christine Umbrell

Communication between board and staff members traditionally occurs through the executive director. But some associations are empowering staff to work directly with board members on specific projects—and they like the results.

For any association to succeed in today's world where change is a constant, the economy is in flux, and new technologies are shifting information-delivery plans on a regular basis, it's more important than ever for boards and staff members to work in sync. While boards are responsible for overall strategy, staff members must be able to carry out the strategic plan, and working in cooperation with one another is essential.

At most associations, policies and procedures ensure that interactions between board members and staff happen through the executive director. However, some associations are experimenting with loosening these rules to allow for expanded board-staff contact on various projects, using a team approach to achieve specific goals.

One example is the Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals (AHMP). Toward the end of 2010, "we really started to look at what was in the strategic plan and realized that what the board wanted and the capabilities of the staff did not match up," says Cedric Calhoun, CAE, the organization's executive director and chair of ASAE's CEO Advisory Board. "We kept falling short but didn't know why. We started looking internally because there is never a shortage of ideas, but the execution is where we fell short. We also began to focus more on specific areas of the plan that would meet specific needs, whether it be revenue generation or advocacy."

To solve the problem and match goals with staff capabilities, AHMP has implemented a new approach: "We are tying staff responsibilities and capabilities as well as committee functions to the strategic plan and tactical initiatives," says Calhoun. "This way, the board knows that everything we want to do, we have the capabilities of doing."

Functional staff submit forward-looking reports for each board meeting so the focus remains on what still needs to be accomplished or what new ideas or initiatives have come out of completed tasks. The board can see the progress being made by individual staff members and committees and identify areas of strength as well as areas that need improvement.

In addition, Calhoun's organization empowers board members to assist staff in particular tasks, as necessary. "Specific board members serve as sounding boards for staff members so they understand that the board is interested in what they are doing for the organization," he says. "The board understands [its] role as it relates to staff, but [this arrangement] allows the board to gather information that may not otherwise get to me."

After a project or idea is approved and assigned to a staff member, a board liaison and the staff member work together to complete the project. "It is more of a shared role so that the staff have a more productive relationship with the board," Calhoun says. "The other aspect of this is coaching for the staff from a person from the field. They enjoy it."

More Productive Partnerships

Both staff and board members at AHMP say the increased communication has meant that more of the organization's plans are carried out as originally intended. Calhoun says, "This process allows me to accurately seek assistance in areas where staff may not have the capabilities and gives the organization a better chance to achieve initiatives coming out of the strategic plan."

He cautions against going to an extreme; it's important to make sure the executive director remains aware of the discussions and working relationships between the board and staff. "The internal/external communications are always an issue because of the working relationship, which is why all assignments and status reports come through me," Calhoun says. "It gives me a chance to manage the progress of any project and step in when I see that something may not be going quite right."

While such a structure would work at most organizations, Calhoun says, associations considering such a change should expect a trial-and-error period before settling on the extent of board-staff interactions. "We talked about this approach for a while before we launched it and made it a part of how we do business," he says. "There were many failed attempts as well, so we learned from our previous mistakes."

And although tying staff responsibilities to the strategic plan has led to better outcomes at AHMP, it is not an easy approach. "Sometimes staff do not feel like they are empowered because they are working with a board member and feel they have to do [what the board member] says," Calhoun says.

To counter negative feelings among staff, AHMP emphasizes a team approach. "The board members have skills in certain areas, and staff have skills in other areas," Calhoun says. "As a team, we can accomplish great things. As individuals, we accomplish individual feats. As an organization, we want to praise individual achievement but stress the team approach."

Defining Roles

Regardless of how extensive the interactions between board and staff members are, it's essential that both groups clearly understand their defined roles and responsibilities.

Boards should "respect the reporting lines, communication channels, and the culture of the organization you govern," says Nancy Axelrod, founding president of the National Center for Nonprofit Boards, now BoardSource, and the cofacilitator of ASAE's Exceptional Boards program. "Don't supervise or micromanage individual staff members. Remember that while the chief staff officer reports to the collective board, other staff members report either to the chief staff officer or other supervisors."

Even when staff and board members are empowered to work together to achieve specific goals, board members "should try to restrain themselves from managing staff," says Marla J. Bobowick, an independent consultant with expertise in the area of nonprofit boards.

Members of the board should not circumvent the executive director to get their pet projects done, says Bobowick. "Board members don't have the authority to manage or direct staff any more than any other member of the association," she says.

Managing the staff is the executive director's job, and changes in operational programming need to start there. But there are times when staff will meet with board members to discuss particular programs or services, or as part of committees, when it becomes the board members' job to help staff carry out programs. At those times, it's important for board members to avoid taking advantage of the situation, says Bobowick. Honoring boundaries goes both ways. Although it can seem cumbersome for a board member to keep the executive director in the loop about all interactions, it shows respect for the proper channels of communication.

Getting Acquainted

If board and staff members are going to work closely on projects, it may be beneficial for the various personalities to get to know each other on a more personal level.

"When possible, make sure that staff has the opportunity to meet with board members outside of meetings," says Therese Brown, executive director, Association of Catholic Publishers. "Board members are first members of the organization. They give their time on the board because of their dedication to the mission." Knowing what makes a board member "tick"—his or her priorities and hot-button issues—can help staff stay on course in their day-to-day operational roles.

As with any good team, regular interaction is necessary to ensure that communication flows easily between board and staff. But how often and in what formats should they meet? "Regular interaction is more necessary than any particular type," says Brown.

The executive director's attendance at board meetings is a given, but having other staff members attend can be beneficial in some organizations. The level of staff involvement at such meetings will differ according to an association's culture.

At organizations like AHMP, where staff and board members are working closely together, board members might even attend staff meetings—but that also depends on culture. "For some, that could be threatening, says Brown. "On the other hand, if board members are participating as active members for certain projects, that can be beneficial, but there probably needs to be some clear boundaries around behavior on all sides."

When staff and board members are working together on long-term projects, it's important to make sure that goals remain in sight and to be aware of everyone's responsibilities, especially when boards turn over.

"Do not have preconceived notions of how people will behave," says Brown, even if you think you know each other. "Start off with a conversation to set expectations. And then follow through with making sure that all parties proceed that way."

When setting strategy, board members should leave the management of details of specific programs to staff. Board members should focus their time "on the responsibilities of the collective board and individual board members rather than the tactics and implementation assigned to staff members," says Axelrod.

Board members do need to communicate with staff regarding specific pieces of the strategy outlined in the strategic plan, says Brown. This is particularly critical when a popular program needs to be changed or even cut, because staff will ultimately be responsible for communicating those changes to the general membership, who may resist the change.

Transparency is key for smaller organizations, where board members may be more involved in assisting staff in their duties. "Board members are often taking on responsibility for work that larger staffs might be more capable of doing," says Brown. "By not sharing all relevant information, you can be seen as an obstruction or as hiding something."

Likewise, staff members need to share information with the board when changes occur at an operational level. "Let the board know a little ahead of time about any special reports coming out or any big programs that are launching," says Bobowick. Staff should inform the entire board—not just those involved in a project—to give them a respectful heads-up regarding any program or service changes before the rest of the membership is told.

Respecting Your Teammates

For a successful partnership, both board and staff need to follow the golden rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. This holds especially true now that technology has advanced to the point where anyone can call, text, or email anyone else at any time.

Board and staff members should respect each other's private time, which means having a conversation about when it is inappropriate to contact each other. Bobowick says that staff and board members should agree not to call each other at night or on weekends. This can be a challenging rule to follow, since most board members are busy at their "day jobs" during regular business hours, so they may be tempted to relegate staff communications to evenings. But this is a risky precedent to set. "Reserve late-night phone calls for very urgent matters," says Bobowick.

As the old saying goes, any team is only as successful as its weakest link. Associations should ensure that their links are strong by examining whether board and staff members know their responsibilities, are working to implement the organization's strategy, and provide value for their members. For some, that may mean taking a closer look at the structure in place and examining whether the communications between board and staff are sufficient for achieving those goals.

Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer in Herndon, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Christine Umbrell

Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia.