Published: 6 January 2017

How to make the case for comms with trustees

Communications can help trustees deliver on virtually every organisational aim and governance duty laid out by the Charity Commission. However, these things can only happen when the communications function enjoys recognition, understanding and influence at the top of the organisation.

If your trustees are yet to be persuaded of the critical, strategic role of comms in your organisation, keep clear arguments to hand. Mark Atkinson, CEO of Scope, sees trustees as the guardians of the charity’s brand. As such he believes it’s critically important that communications skills are valued and recognised as an important capability among trustees.

With respect, if you’ve just got the operations and finance people, while that’s good and important, it doesn’t connect you to the external world, to the environment in which your charity is operating. You need people who can bring those things right to the heart of the discussion of the board. You’ve got to make the pitch that good communications is critical to delivering any strategy.

John Grounds, communications consultant and CharityComms chair, agrees. 

Start with brand, strategy and narrative. The principle case for comms is: we are the way in which those things get communicated to the outside world. We, along with fundraising colleagues, are the principle interface between what the organisation is trying to do and the world it is trying to engage with. Just that fact ought to make trustees say: 'I get why this is important to everything we are trying to achieve'.

Engage the board with your strategy document

Some comms teams approach the development of their communications strategy as an executive-only exercise. Others prefer, or are required, to brainstorm with trustees and seek board approval. The approach taken will be influenced by the culture of the organisation and, possibly, by the level of comms expertise on the board. 

Whatever the mechanism for arriving at your comms strategy, if your trustees are to understand what you are trying to do in comms, they will need to become familiar with its contents. Critically, they need to understand how the comms strategy links to the organisational strategy.

Share findings on research and reviews

Where possible, share with trustees any market research findings in support of your strategic planning. Trustees are generally keen for market insights, which can help them make business sense of your arguments.

John Williams, communications strategist and vice chair of the Association of Chairs, believes it’s important to use research, not only for your own planning purposes, but also for communicating with your trustees. 

It will help make trustees curious about the reputation of their organisation, its standing, the strength of its brand,” says John. “If you are giving a strategic presentation and you can say, ‘our awareness rating is 10 per cent and our competitor’s rating is 30 per cent,’ well it’s going to start a conversation.

Start and continue relationships at a strategic level

For Deborah Alsina, CEO, Bowel Cancer UK, it’s vital to ensure her board has the right skills to be able to help drive the organisation forward strategically.

Right from recruitment, I’m talking to candidates about comms issues, to get them in the head space of thinking about why comms is so important and what more the charity should be doing.

Relationships begin with recruiting the right trustees and inducting them. If comms is not currently involved with trustee inductions, talk to your CEO, offer your services, and make the most of the opportunity.

Having been inducted, trustees may get some form of comms training. There is no consensus on this. Budget considerations aside, some would rather train just the chair, or train trustees only on a ‘need to do media’ basis. On the other hand, something might be said for a basic grounding.

Be wary of tactical engagement

It’s common for less comms-oriented trustees to propose or respond to an isolated tactical event – a new Facebook page, or an article in the Guardian.  But in the absence of a strategic context, such interventions may not be helpful. Proposals (or worse, instructions) will lack a policy rationale. Evaluations of comms work may not be made against appropriate, fair criteria. The solution is to build up strategic awareness.

Check the strategic remit

Striking the right balance can be difficult. The terms of reference for trustees make clear that their role is about organisational governance and strategic thinking, but senior executives are the ones normally expected to devise and deliver strategy. 

Many smaller charities depend on competent trustees to help out with both strategic and practical work. Bigger charities will be more inclined to clarify boundaries, but executives may accept specific trustee contributions that add value.

This article is from CharityComms’ Best Practice Guide How to talk to your trustees about comms. Download the full report for free.

Kay Parris, freelance journalist and editor

Kay Parris is a freelance writer, journalist and editor working in the not-for-profit sector.