Community trust takes work

Consider this: The long-standing executive director of an established not-for-profit suddenly submits her resignation.  The director is well-respected and liked by the organization’s board of directors as well as by staff members, clients, volunteers, and donors.  While the board knows the reason for the director’s departure, it is a private matter, unrelated to the organization, that they cannot make public.  The board issues a press release announcing the director is leaving. They thank her for her lengthy service, adding that the board is excited to be moving in a new direction.  No specific details are provided.

Changes in leadership can happen at any moment

A not-or-profit’s leadership may undergo sudden changes for many reasons: illness, death, family issues, professional advancement, or the discovery of malfeasance that requires an immediate dismissal. Unanticipated transitions can leave organizations that depend upon community support particularly vulnerable as board members scramble to communicate with stakeholders and fill the leadership gap.  

Resilience Communications sees two common mistakes organizations make in circumstances like this. First, boards dealing with unexpected changes can fail to communicate clearly and reassuringly with staffers, donors, volunteers, and any other stakeholders. This failure allows rumors to fly and insecurities to mount. Second, many boards facing transition decisions lack sound guidelines and/or governance by-laws that help maintain transparency and trust. 

In this situation, board members communicate too little, leaving plenty of ground for rumors to take hold. Then, anxious about the leadership void, they rush through the job search, violating their own policies by hastily hiring someone without much scrutiny or input from staffers.  It quickly becomes clear that the new director is a bad fit. Multiple staffers quit, volunteers thin out and donors slow down their giving.  The board is now faced with the challenge of finding a new executive director who can both run the organization and restore trust in the community.

Clear communication plans and policies can make all the difference 

Many problems like this can be minimized or even avoided with forethought and preparation.  No matter how smoothly things are going in an organization, challenges arise.  We recommend that our clients always have two fundamental tools in place:

  • A communications plan – A good plan anticipates all sorts of scenarios, names spokespeople, and includes draft statements that contain some essential elements: an explanation of what is happening, reassurance that things are under control, a sense of next steps, and a contact person to discuss questions and concerns. 
  • A governance policy – Think of this as the not-for-profit’s Constitution. It sets down the policies and procedures the board of directors must follow, including conflict of interest rules, hiring protocols, and clear and precise explanations of what is expected of every board member and officer. These are the kinds of policies that give people road maps to follow when problems arise. They are often requested by sophisticated donors before they make gifts. 

Resilience Communications has helped many organizations create communications plans, and assisted them before, during and after repetitional challenges. Contact us for more information.