Communication Consulting

Background: Over the years I have met many people in non-profit leadership positons that have the same sorts of organizational and communication issues as for-profit organizations but lack the tools available to their business counterparts. Having one foot in each world I decided to create a simplified communication plan that teams could reflect on and implement quickly. This content has been distributed freely and widely and is in use in both Catholic and Protestant churches.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Stakeholders
  3. Types of Events
  4. Urgency
  5. The Best Tool for the Job
  6. The Best Tool for the Person
  7. Philosophy of Communication

Communication.

Communication most often breaks down, not for lack of discipline or desire, but for lack of planning.  The following exercises illuminate the scope of what will eventually become a communications plan.  In order to plan effectively though; a working knowledge of the environment must be gained.  Upon this understanding of that working environment; a plan can be effectively built.

There can exist a feeling of being trapped, of being at the mercy of some mysterious force in the Universe, when some messages seem to get through loud and clear to our stakeholders, and others seem to get lost in the shuffle.  What is it that causes a communications breakdown?  Does “today’s technology” help eliminate them or cause them?  The answers are “poor planning” and “sometimes both,” respectively. 

This guide will lay the groundwork for any technological solutions you may ultimately choose; it will put you, the leader, in charge of the system so that the tools; both technological and organizational will serve you; not the other way around. 

Stakeholders.

Stakeholders are those involved directly in any action performed by an organization as well as those that will be affected by an organization’s actions.  In a church, stakeholders may include:

  1. Passive members of the congregation (the masses)
  2. Active members of the congregation (volunteers)
  3. Staff
  4. Leadership
  5. Non-believers
  6. Outside vendors
  7. Other churches or partnerships
  8. Government

These stakeholders will either have no interest, little interest or a great deal of interest in any given decision.  Some of these stakeholders may in fact be the ones making the decision or influencing the decision.

Types of Events.

Every organization will have events that yield information that it collects, information that it generates, and information that it disseminates.  Information, in turn, can be defined as anything that is communicated.  This can be very informal in the case of a greeting or it can be very formal in the case of tax filings.  An event in the life of an organization may produce many types of information; each one appropriate for a different audience.

An example of a single event producing various forms of information can be seen in the case of a budget being approved.  A good way to break down the types of information is to view it through the lenses of the various stakeholders.  An example of how the various stakeholders listed above would view a yearly budget for a church would look like this:

  1. Passive members of the congregation (the masses) – a blurb in the bulletin with minimal discussion
  2. Active members of the congregation (volunteers) – a break down of how the new budget affects each ministry
  3. Staff – line item for each ministry and perhaps a period of appeals or amendments based on “feedback”
  4. Leadership – creation of budget, handling appeals
  5. Those that are not believers
  6. Outside vendors – little or no information
  7. Other churches or partnerships – limited to affect of joint venture budgets
  8. Government – none, or as required by law to maintain non-profit status

A good exercise for an organization that wishes to improve its communication is to create a series of spreadsheets (one for each stakeholder) with two vertical columns.  On the left column of each spreadsheet list the types of events that occur on any regular basis or could foreseeably occur.  On the right-hand column list the appropriate response (type of information that would correspond to each type of event.  These events can be thought of as stimuli or, “triggers”.

The result will look like this (assuming that this is for the passive member of the congregation):

EVENT

COMMUNICATION

Yearly budget Insert of final budget inserted in bulletin
New hire Potluck to meet them, Q&A, brief bio. In monthly newsletter
Picnic cancelled Email and phone calls, post someone at door to turn people away that didn’t hear
Baptism None…they will find out that Sunday

You may find after writing out the way that you do things currently that there is a lot of ambiguity or unnecessary redundancy.  You may find that you are, “keeping people in the loop” by active means, when passive means would do e.g. you are putting too little in the newsletter and sending too many emails.

If you find this to be the case, and before you begin any overhauls to the technology you are using (email, phone, paper newsletter, etc.) create a table like this for each of your stakeholders that represents an ideal scenario for your organization.  It will only be after you have written down your current environment that you will be able to spot the obvious fools errands and wild goose chases.  Do you really need to email the congregation several times a week with updates to meeting times for groups they are not members of?  Do you really want to trust an answering machine with a message that a woman in the congregation was in a serious car wreck and hope that the lead elder gets the message in time?  Is the church marquee the best place for a pithy expression that will only make the converts smile…or could it draw the non-believer through the doors?

Urgency.

Each organization may have varying needs for the speed at which their information must be disseminated.  Even within an organization there may be different priorities given to different messages given to different stakeholders.  For example an elder may need to know about a congregants car wreck within an hour, while a congregant may only need to hear about the decision to re-plumb the men’s bathroom at a semi-annual budget meeting.

This seems very obvious; however, the implications are profound.  If we begin to think in terms of time frames instead of methods of communication we may realize that we are trusting our assumptions about “best” methods rather than asking our stakeholders about there particular capabilities and habits.

Think of urgency in these terms:

  1. Urgent – within an hour or two
  2. Soon – within a day or two
  3. Low priority – within a week or two
  4. Whenever – within a month or two

Take out the spreadsheets you created earlier and in the margin next to the right hand column, write the number “1,” “2,” “3,” or, “4,” corresponding to the hierarchy of urgency listed above.  After evaluating the urgency of information according to the stakeholder; and after looking at how you are currently communicating with these stakeholders under these circumstances; you will probably find some choices that don’t make sense.  You may find out that you are sending emails when you should be sending out a newsletter or posting to a website.  You may find that you are counting on easier methods of communication simply because they are easier instead of picking the method that will actually get the results you need (e.g. it is easier to send an email than to cal0 20 people).

One other factor to consider is that of response (sometimes called, “feedback,” or “confirmation.”).  If your information requires a response, what is the best amount of time to allow for these responses?  What happens if you do not receive a reply within that amount of time?  A communications protocol answers those questions through a series of preset, “escalations.”  Escalations are simply things that happen as a result of the system not receiving the feedback it was expecting.  An example would be placing a phone call to the one person out of 10 that did not confirm a meeting rescheduling via email within 48 hours.  This ensures that that person does not “fall through the cracks”.  Naturally this requires organization on the part of the person or organization that is sending the email out.  Any good communications protocol involves tracking information and reporting breakdowns.

The best tool for the job.

It is tempting to think of information as being one in he same as the method of communication; but, in fact, it is distinct.  For example, if a person wanted to share information with a group of people and the information was not particularly sensitive or urgent; an email may seem the best method for communication.  In most cases this would be correct; however, some of your stakeholders may not have an email account, or may only be able to check it weekly.  If proper homework has not been done and if we think of the message and the medium as the same; we will find that we are stuck on the way things “should be” and not on the goal of communication.  The real, albeit unstated, goal of most emails is to communicate information meant to be seen within 48 hours of being sent. 

This premise begs the question, “Are all the people on this mailing list accessing their account at least once in every 48 hours?”  If they are not, and it is important that they receive this information, there needs to be an exception made for them in our communication protocols.  Protocols are simply rules that an organization agrees to – and uses under various circumstances.

As stated before, each method of communication has its benefits and drawbacks.  Here is a table that lists approximate level of urgency that the method can be counted on to handle.

Cell phone Urgent
In person meeting Urgent
Work or Home phone Soon
Email Soon / Low
US mail Low
Weekly announcement at church Low
Posting to website Low / Whenever
Newsletter Whenever
Brochure Whenever
Word of Mouth Whenever
Bulletin Board Whenever

The best tool for the person.

The table above is a good starting point; however, for every level of urgency short of “whenever,” you should allow your stakeholders to modify their preferred method for each level or urgency.  Modern electronic devices and corresponding services like Blackberry or “push email” allow people to receive email as quickly as a phone call.  In these instances, they may elect to be emailed “urgent” messages.  Similarly, if a person is asked directly they may offer a neighbors phone number for urgent messages (perhaps because they do not have a home phone).  They might not have thought to offer it to your organization, but will readily provide it if asked.  Remember, the goal is to communicate to the right people the right information in the appropriate time frame.

Philosophy of Communication

We have at our disposal, and usually with little cost, a wide range of methods of communication.  Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks; and these benefits and drawbacks help us to know which method is best for which type of information that needs to be communicated and for which stakeholder.

Because of the increase in methods of communication; we are provided more information in a day than a person a hundred years ago might have faced in a month.  In order not to add to the noise of your stakeholders lives, it is important not to “cry wolf.”  If you send out an email or call every time your organization changes a light bulb: your organization’s emails will soon be marked as “spam” and your calls will be screened. 

All communication coming out of your organization need to be placed in the least urgent category possible at all times.  This is not to say that you cannot ever have truly urgent messages sent out – but rather that if you are “honest” about urgency, your stakeholders will treat the truly urgent as such when you do ask them to.

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