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Tools to Help Foster a Culture of Communication at Your Nonprofit


Matthew CoutoBy: Matthew Couto, freelance copywriter and journalist

A culture of communication benefits everyone.

When systems and expectations are put into place that encourage people to communicate honestly, frequently, and respectfully, the moving pieces of an organization come together. 

It keeps employees up-to-date on strategic direction and gives leadership invaluable feedback and perspective from employees, which informs their decision-making.

Everyone spends less time trying to understand what’s going on, and more time focused on their work.

Here’s how you can foster a culture of communications at your nonprofit.

A Culture of Communication Starts at the Top

While everyone at a nonprofit influences organizational culture, the process of creating culture is mainly top-down. In designing rules of conduct, hiring systems, and communications practices, leadership shapes the way people within the organization relate to each other. 

And even in the most amiable and supportive workplaces, there are unspoken power dynamics that prevent employees from communicating openly. For example, many employees stay quiet when they worry that their input will be perceived as a challenge to leadership’s authority. 

“Employees were 54 percent more likely than their leaders to choose avoiding conflict and maintaining pleasant relationships.” - 

Employees hesitate to put themselves at odds with their leadership, and so they look to them for cues to determine how open they can be without crossing boundaries. Therefore, it’s up to nonprofit leaders to be honest, courageous and invite tough conversations that foster growth.

“Honesty is the essence of leadership,” Dan Pallotta of the Harvard Business Review writes. “True potential cannot be realized unless communication is placed above everything else. That has to start from the top.”

The Role of Leaders

Leaders do well to lead by example and show respect to employees by valuing their input and involving them in the direction of the organization.

CLO Media says this means encouraging your employees to ask good questions and then actively listening to their answers. While leaders should mentor and guide their employees, they won’t inspire them if they don’t provide opportunities for others to contribute.

“Seeking to understand before you are understood is much more important than trying to be the smartest person in the room.” -

It’s also important for leaders to communicate with their team in a timely, consistent and truthful manner.

“When leaders fail to communicate in a timely fashion, people fill in the gaps with assumptions, distorting the intended message,” according to CLO media. In other words, keeping your team in the dark breeds rumors and conflict. 

That’s why it’s critical that your employees trust they are receiving the information they need to guide their work. They need to know what you want to accomplish and the reasoning for your decisions. Providing your reasoning opens conversations for feedback, and gives employees a chance to ask questions and ultimately better understand how their role fits into your strategy.

The Benefits of a Culture of Communication

Built-In Conflict Resolution

Communication tends to die in tense situations. This lack of communication causes conflict to develop from small issues that go unaddressed.

For example, you may be frustrated with a colleague who doesn’t inform you when she completes work that you need in order to start your tasks, forcing you to constantly check in with her. In your colleague's mind, she may think nothing is wrong because she is hitting her deadlines; she doesn’t realize the consequences of her actions. If this small issue goes unaddressed, you may build up resentment and begin lashing out at her in other ways, inviting larger conflict. However, simply speaking to her and asking for a heads up when she completes her tasks would prevent the situation from escalating.

This is a simple example, but it highlights the power of communication; if everyone is open with one another -- even with the little things -- conflict is constantly nipped in the bud.

And when conflict does erupt, open and honest communication can de-escalate tension and help the team move toward satisfying, effective solutions. 

Increased Productivity

A culture of communication makes employees invest more into their workplace. It makes them feel valued, confident, and that they play an important role. This inspires them to give more, and creates positive attitudes that fuel good work and decrease turnover.

According to Matt Stratz, “Happy employees want to stay where they are and continue to do their best work.” By fostering genuine emotional investment in the workplace, a culture of communication moves the entire organization forward. 

Room for creativity

We tend to romanticize creativity. We believe brilliant ideas come from one inspired moment. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Creativity happens not with one brilliant flash but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks while executing an idea,” Douglas Eby writes. There are “tons of [bad] ideas; the trick is to evaluate them and mercilessly purge the bad ones. But even bad ideas can be useful.”

True creativity comes from persistent, hard work and can only flourish in an environment where people feel safe enough to fail.

Encouraging open communication makes employees feel comfortable voicing or acting on their ideas, even if they prove to be ineffective. This allows for trial and error, and makes room for innovation within your nonprofit.

Embracing Ruthlessly Honest Communication

There’s no easy way to create a culture of communication. You just have to be ruthlessly honest when you communicate, all the time. This doesn’t mean being tactless or rude; you can think about what you want to say and frame it in a respectful and diplomatic way. But the key is not to dance around the issue, but rather say exactly what you mean even if the idea makes you uncomfortable.

 “Unfortunately, most people avoid discomfort. I mean, they really avoid it — at the first sign of discomfort, they’ll run as fast as possible in the other direction. This is perhaps the biggest limiting factor for most people, and why they can’t change their habits.” - Leo Babauta

More often than not, you and your peers are in the same boat. If you’re feeling like addressing an issue is making you feel vulnerable, chances are you bringing it up is going to make them feel the same way. Look at these uncomfortable moments as opportunities to connect with your peers and learn and grow from your different perspectives.

Like most things, the hardest part is getting started - that is, bringing up the issue! The actual discussion and resolution will flow once the ice is broken.

Real-Time Tips for Communicating Effectively

Here are some great tips from Psychology Today that you can incorporate into how you communicate at work to better understand, and be better understood, by your colleagues.

  • Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be direct and honest; don't dance around the issue or play games.
  • Nod, smile, or occasionally make affirmative vocalizations or other responses that tell the sender you're paying attention.
  • Wait for the person to complete a thought without interrupting to express your own ideas.
  • If you're not sure you understand the message, ask questions and seek clarification.
  • Paraphrase what you heard so the sender can be sure you got the right idea.
  • Ask for feedback to ensure the message you sent was accurately received.

Using Online Communications Tools to Help Foster a Culture of Communication

Communicating online has become a standard component of the modern workplace.

While email is essential, using it exclusively to communicate internally gets messy when there are many conversations that need to happen.

It becomes difficult to keep track of which email threads are addressing which tasks, and so things inevitably fall through the cracks. Online communications tools like Slack can help.

With Slack, you can create a different conversation thread for each of your relevant tasks or teams.

For example, if you’re working on a specific marketing campaign, you can create a thread for that campaign and include everyone involved. This way, all communications related to that campaign are kept in one place, separate from other conversations.

At the same time, you can have a general thread for your entire team, one for just the marketing team, one for each other project going (and more), so that all your communications are compartmentalized and you only give and receive relevant information.

Online communications tools keep things streamlined and organized, helping team members stay on top of their responsibilities.

Slack also lets you have direct message your teammates for one-off conversations, and lets you start video calls when text isn’t enough.

Other great options include Fleep and Bitrix24.

Too Effective to Fail 

Establishing a culture of communication at your nonprofit takes a lot of leadership, courage and perseverance. However, there’s good news.

“If you commit to it, there is pretty much no way to screw it up,” says Dan Pallotta. “And it will create real transformation in your organization.”

We hope you’re able to have more courageous conversations with your colleagues going forward.

About the author:

Matthew is a freelance copywriter and journalist with marketing experience in the nonprofit sector. He has a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University and worked as communications coordinator with TechSoup Canada where his versatility brought out engaging technical and human stories. When he’s not at the keyboard, he’s playing the drums or studying French.