Charity Secretary: How to Manage Communications at Non-profit Boards

A charity secretary commonly face challenges in managing communications and there are two main issues in non-profit board-level exchanges:  1) communications among trustees and 2) board-staff communications. Charity secretaries should seek to make trustees understand the importance of communication and how to share it. Communications with staff should be open and easy, and trustees should get to know staff members and become accustomed to working with them without any kind of constraint.

Good communications is critical to achieve objectives

Communication is different at charities and non-profit boards than at regular businesses. This is because non-profit boards are structured differently and trustees operate differently from directors.

There are two issues in non-profit board-level exchanges:  1) communications among trustees and 2) board-staff communications.

At a charitable organisation, board and staff tend to operate under more relaxed conditions than at for-profit businesses. Nonetheless, formal procedures tend to influence communications at all levels, largely because trustees appear to have little understanding of how communication should function, according to a report from the professional network Charity Comms.

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Be an impartial communicator

“Trustees are not generally interested in communications for its own sake. But tell them how it raises brand awareness or mitigates risk and they will sit up and listen. Remind them that their responsibilities include impact reporting, awareness-raising, accuracy of information, transparency and reputation management and you start to build a picture of how vital good communications is to good governance.”

Trustees need to understand how communications can progress organisational goals, and find solutions to applicable problems, the report explains.

For example, recent difficulties have left many charities, and the sector at large, nursing damaged reputations. Risk was badly managed, and reputations were damaged. Recovering a good reputation requires an improved communications strategy that prioritises transparency and the objective verification of achievements.

The challenge, for a charity secretary who is managing communications, is to pin down board concerns, demonstrate how communications can progress organisational goals, and find communications solutions to applicable problems.

Learning to talk to staff

Trustees also need help from a charity secretary to simplify communications with staff, as Northwest Non-profit Notes explains.

“A thriving board-staff team environment makes it possible for a non-profit to gain serious traction on their mission, to benefit from the full array of assets and perspectives on the team. This requires normalising and de-formalising simple, reasonable, well-intentioned day-to-day interactions among 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.)”

A charity secretary can help make trustee-staff communications into a positive connection and should have a leadership role, inculcating certain values.

At the most basic level, a charity secretary has to motivate board members to get to know each other. Trust is an essential ingredient in any organisation working to its highest capacity, but it’s hard to trust fellow board or staff members if you barely know them. Make opportunities for the whole team to come together, even just to sit down and all have tea. If possible, set trustees and staff to working on projects together, and that will break down the barriers even more quickly.  Relationships based on trust and respect require spending time together – working on a project or sharing an experience.  This will result in the additional advantage that the team will all know the unique skills, capabilities, experience and connections both trustees and staff have to offer.

First, sharing expertise and connections is important for the sake of the organisation.  Staff members should be able to contact any trustee at any time for a good reason. Trustees should not feel ‘separated’ from staff members in any way. In this manner, useful expertise, important personal connections and advice in performing jobs can be shared easily and naturally. Unsolicited input and feedback should always be encouraged so long as it is civil and directed to work matters. Constructive criticism should be encouraged too, and should not lead to resentment.

Then, making trustees more effective should be an objective for communications from staff. Staff should never be afraid to share information that enables effective ambassadorship; trustees have to effectively represent the organisation and its mission, and staff members should support that goal freely. This kind of communication should go both ways without any hindrance. A staff member should immediately brief a trustee on changes in, for example, legislative strategy. A trustee should share information about a major donor with a staff member who will be meeting that person for the first time.

With all this being said, there is good reason to always maintain healthy boundaries between staff and trustees. A charity secretary should see that no situation arises in which a staff member and a trustee are alone working on a project. There’s no real danger here until the trustee and the staff member disagree strongly about something. Then the communication can become awkward – it’s time to bring in the other trustees and staff members who can help.

Clearly, communications among trustees and communications between trustees and staff can both be challenging.  Trustees need to be especially mindful of the power dynamics between board and staff, but in healthy organisations, reasonable people should be able to apply these principles freely, exercising both good judgment on their own part and the assumption of good intent on the part of others.

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