An organization may boast an executive director with years of experience in the voluntary sector, a top-notch communications coordinator, a board filled with the most impressive experts in their field, and a dedicated volunteer base. But without one key element, every one of those assets can fall swiftly by the wayside. Its name is communication; not the external kind, but the kind that takes place internally in the workplace. It brings people together, establishes an environment of congeniality, of encouragement, support and understanding. It helps ideas move more efficiently and cohesively from conception to execution and ensures decisions reflect not only a gathering of minds but of ideas and approach. “Communications is the lifeblood of relationships,” says communications consultant, Nina Winham principal of New Climate Strategies, a consultancy focusing on sustainability, communications, and business strategy. “And leadership is effectively building those relationships in order to move people forward.”
A recent study commissioned by the International Association of Business Communicators identified the top critical employee challenges faced by communicators. One was defined as the need to educate and engage leaders and managers in their role in employee communication. Another was the need to motivate employees to align with the business strategy. Effective organizations recognize the need to build a community of like-minded people motivated to work together toward a shared goal.
It stands to reason, therefore, that no matter what size, type or mission it pursues, an organization needs to implement effective internal communication procedures. Abby Robins, for one, knows how important this element can be. As communications manager of Toronto-based Second Harvest, Robins runs any new ideas by her formal communications committee before initiating a new campaign or program. Made up of experts in the field, the committee provides her with feedback that Robins then incorporates with ideas of her own. Not only has effective communication with her committee been beneficial to her moving forward with confidence and support, but the next step of garnering endorsement from the organization’s board of directors is made that much easier with the committee’s stamp of approval.
The many determinants of effective internal communication
Of course, an organization’s culture can impact its approach to communications - as well its likelihood for success. And many factors can influence that culture. For one thing, there’s the board, a fundamental and significant cornerstone of any organization. In some situations, a great and acrimonious divide between board and management sets the tone, undermining the relationships. Luckily, many organizations are able to establish an atmosphere of cooperation, compromise and harmony. Second Harvest is one of those lucky ones. “We have a really strong board that is very supportive,” says Robins. This culture of support and cooperation can produce far-reaching results, with communication as its staunch supporter.
Then there’s the interrelated concept of communication style. How a leader chooses to address her staff, volunteers, stakeholders and others, speaks volumes. Is the organization run as a dictatorship or is there openness and room for opinions, ideas, judgements? Of course, there are plenty of styles that fall somewhere in between either extreme, each of which can promote a healthy level of communication and forward movement. According to Robins, Second Harvest’s success with communication can be attributed to an organizational style inspired as much by its board as by its executive director. “Zoe Cormack Jones, our ED, sets the tone to be transparent and to share information with people rather than withhold,” she says.
Speaking clearly and openly
For Winham, openness and transparency is key. “Ultimately, the fundamental questions is, ‘are you open to sharing your ideas and thought processes?'” she asks. After all, a leader will not garner the optimal level of support from her staff without an element of openness. “I think where people get hung up on communications is when they really aren’t willing to be transparent.” Hand in hand with an open communication style comes a culture of flexibility, one that promotes warmth, support and a willingness to listen. “Anybody who wants to be a good leader has to be a good communicator,” Winham says. “How can people follow you if you don’t let them know why and if you don’t share that you care whether they understand?”
That sharing and openness of ideas is as important in one’s written communication as it is in the verbal form. Be sure that whatever gets printed reflects the culture of the organization, Winham cautions. Try to avoid writing an internal memo that’s very structured and formal in tone, for example, if one speaks with an informal style. And Winham offers a word of advice for those who tend to write stiffly despite their laidback and open verbal style: “Read aloud to yourself first anything you put down on paper.” In this way, your informal style will be reflected in every form of communication you undertake.
Though it may sound pretty straightforward, establishing open and healthy communication is not always an easy endeavour. For small or mid-size organizations, many of whom lack a strong infrastructure, the culture of informality can often mean the priority of communications gets relegated to the backburner. “People at the top don’t always have the time or the staff to take on the communication roles, so it falls through the cracks a lot of times,” explains Corinne LaBossiere, principal of CGL Communications. Added to that obstacle is the all-encompassing focus by organizations these days on the search for funds. “I’ve found that fundraising takes precedence over a lot of things, such as really effective communication,” LaBossiere adds.
Despite this, organizations need to realize that, although perhaps a difficult proposition at times, it would behoove them to pursue other priorities as well. After all, without positive internal communication efforts, a nonprofit’s most valued resources may walk right out the door.
Conversing with your volunteers
One particular resource an organization should be mindful of when adopting a culture of communication is its volunteers. In this competitive nonprofit arena, establishing positive dialogue and, hence, good relationships with one’s volunteer base can prove essential. “As opposed to private corporations, a nonprofit organization has to address the fact that volunteers often feel they should have a say in how the organization is run,” says LaBossiere. Maggie Fairs, founder and executive director of the Media Foundation, agrees. “Communicating with volunteers is so valuable, it even involves a whole other skill-set.” All agree that it is within the organization’s best interest to foster that unique set of skills and to engage in consistently open and interactive dialogue with these significant assets.
Still room for boundaries
At the same time, however, it’s important to be clear about what you want or expect from volunteers and what you don’t. In fact, the same can hold true for how you communicate with staff members. Managers have a right to make a more autonomous decision, for example, if the situation calls for it. But it’s important for them to make that approach known - to themselves and to others - and to communicate that intention effectively. “It’s a problem to solicit advice when they’re not acting on it,” says Winham. “Or if they make it sound like they have a very conciliatory, collaborative process when they don’t actually have one.” A point well taken for many in the nonprofit sector. “Too many chefs can spoil the pot,” echoes Robins. “When you ask for opinions, [people] expect you to listen to them but sometimes you have to say, ‘Thanks for the opinion but it’s just not going to work.’”
That's not always easy, of course. “In the voluntary sector you really do have to answer to a whole lot of different masters,” explains Fairs. So, whether you’re working on a new campaign or a fundraising initiative, you need to always involve many different groups in the process. As a result, goals tend to take a bit longer to accomplish. But, says Fairs, an organization can overcome many obstacles by adopting a good communication plan. “If you involve your board, volunteers, funders, etc. fairly early on, they are working with you as opposed to having to convince them after you’ve already started the process.” With the proper communication in place, forward movement seems not only possible but inevitable.
Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She can be reached at: email@example.com.