7 min Read
January 17, 2018

Three no’s equal yes: Successful communications inside nonprofit organizations

Wayne Ho

This is my second time as the President & CEO of a nonprofit organization, and I’ve learned that communications externally is just as important as communications internally. Going from a 10-person organization (Coalition for Asian American Children and Families) to a 4,000 person-organization (Chinese-American Planning Council), I had to learn to lead differently. This meant that I had to communicate my vision, priorities, and decisions differently.

As the new organizational leader, I was getting to know the organization while the staff were getting to know me. I had to be intentional, strategic, and planful in my communications with all staff—from the chief officers to the line staff. I’ve learned that articulating my vision and managing change relies on effective communication with staff. While organizational leaders get credit (and blame), the reality is that staff carry out an organization’s vision, priorities, and decisions. Communications becomes key to doing so successfully.

So I have three rules for communicating with the senior staff, which I shared in my first meeting with them. I’d like to share them with the Big Duck network in the hopes that it is helpful for seasoned and new nonprofit leaders. These three rules all start with the same word—No.

Rule #1: No Titles

My first rule is No Titles. I inform the senior staff that I don’t believe in titles during meetings. We are all leaders of this organization, and we all have expertise, insight, and suggestions on how to run and improve this organization. We may have different roles and responsibilities which are often informed by our titles, but when we’re in a meeting together, we each have equal say.

I’ve learned that this promotes participatory leadership among the organization. Instead of the CFO focusing on financial management and the Chief Program Officer focusing on program implementation and quality, all senior staff have a say in the operations of the organization. When the Chief Development Officer is asked for their opinion on HR or legal matters, for example, there is greater understanding of the complexity of a large nonprofit organization and greater support of the work of other departments. This helps senior staff to think more comprehensively and more organizationally, and to act less provincially and less departmentally.

This rule means that there will be increased discussion during meetings and that there will be open disagreements among the senior staff. But that is okay.

We need to hear dissonant voices and opposing viewpoints in order to get a stronger, better decision. I have witnessed increased support and buy-in of decisions that affect not only one department but also the entire organization. I have also seen increased risk taking by senior staff – during meetings and in day-to-day work.

I have also experienced increased ownership of decisions. While there are no titles during meetings, I have emphasized that once the decision has been made, then it is everyone’s responsibility to support that decision internally and externally. The senior staff must communicate the decision to the best of their ability and must often manage their direct reports to carry out the decision. So no titles doesn’t mean no decisions.

Rule #2: No Surprises

My second rule is No Surprises. I tell the senior staff that I don’t want any surprises. I believe that the entire senior staff must be aware of both accomplishments and failures in order to lead an organization together. Every nonprofit organization has strengths and weaknesses, and the senior staff must understand these issues, especially to resolve the latter.

Particularly as the new leader of the organization, I want to know as much as possible. I need to learn the good and the bad in order to effectively lead the organization. I’ve also learned that I’m very understanding of mistakes. We’re all human, and mistakes happen. If a program didn’t go well, if a policymaker or funder is upset with us, if a partner organization didn’t get compensated on time, if someone is saying something negative about us, these are all things that every nonprofit goes through and that every leader should know about. Owning up to our mistakes is one of the main ways to address the issue and to become better as a nonprofit, as serving our community should always be the priority.

There should not be surprises for the organizational leader, but this means that there has to be a lot of trust between the senior staff and the CEO. The CEO must create a culture of learning and respect, which form the basis for ensuring that the CEO learns of things before the board, line staff, or any external party. Instead of criticizing staff for efforts that came up short, the CEO can lead a discussion on what went well and what could be done differently the next time. By being reflective as opposed to accusatory, senior staff and line staff will be more willing to vocalize any shortcomings.

Another way to create mutual trust and respect is to ensure that staff don’t get surprised as well. I personally get frustrated when external stakeholders (board members, funders, policymakers, partner organizations, press, etc.) know things before staff do. Staff, especially senior staff, should not learn about a new strategic direction, new hires, new priorities, new programs, or other changes from community partners or in the news. This means that external parties found out about something before staff did.

Can you imagine being the Director of a Beacon Center and finding out first from the City that your funding was not renewed? Or being the Communications Director and first finding out that your CEO is on CNN when you turn on the TV? Neither scenario helps the organizational leader build trust, respect, and commitment from the staff.

I aim to be respectful of staff and to demonstrate my trust by being transparent about organizational decisions and major announcements. There are risks to sharing too much too soon, and confidential information should never be shared. But I believe that if you give someone trust, then they will give you trust in return. The No Surprises rule works both ways.

Rule #3: No Drama

My third rule is No Drama. When I heard that President Obama told his staff that he wanted no drama in the White House, it resonated with me. There is enough drama in the lives of our clients and their families. There is enough drama in the neighborhoods which we are based. There is enough drama among nonprofit organizations collaborating to be more impactful while competing for limited public and private funding. We don’t need any more drama among the senior staff of my own nonprofit.

As the new leader of an organization, I have to build a strong team who works well together. A strong team will help to ensure that the organization can achieve our strategic plan, continue to grow, and be effective. This means there cannot be drama among senior staff.

Organizations will always have crises, unexpected issues, and urgent matters. We cannot plan for everything, so let’s not create our own drama. Let’s stick together as a team to work through these issues together. Instead of the Chief Program Officer and the Chief Development Officer arguing over who was responsible for not getting renewed for a grant, they can work together to shore up funding during these complicated times. Instead of the Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Operating Officer blaming each other for late payments to long-time vendors, they can work together to create better systems between their departments and their staff.

Let’s be honest. There will always be strong personalities and staff conflicts in any organization. But the No Drama rule ensures that everyone is more ready to have tough conversations with each other. Instead of letting issues linger, senior staff are encouraged to address issues one-on-one and to focus energy on organizational success.

In the year that I have been the President & CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council, the senior staff still make comments about the No Titles, No Surprises, and No Drama rules. We have created a strategic plan, revised the vision and mission statements, updated the organizational structure, raised more funding from individuals and foundations, launched new initiatives and programs, and made several other changes and impacts. All of these accomplishments are due to a team effort, and I believe that these three rules have helped to not only clarify my leadership style to the senior staff but also create a true team culture among the senior staff.

So these are my three rules for nonprofit leaders: No Titles, No Surprises, and No Drama. I’ve found that these three No’s will more quickly get a team to Yes.

Wayne Ho is the president & CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council