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Don’t get ignored by your trustee board

11 October 2016

Communications doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves from trustee boards. Many comms professionals, even at senior level, struggle to gain access to trustee meetings. And when they do, they may find themselves side-lined or relegated to the last item on the agenda.

On the other hand, it seems comms people sometimes decline invitations to attend board meetings, or they minimise the opportunity by attending with the sole aim of defending their patch. And they’re not always the best at understanding trustees’ priorities or speaking the language of the board room.

If you’re dissatisfied with the status communications has at the top of your organisation, the first step towards change is to understand where the problem lies. Then you can seek to address it.

Identify the comms champion

If there is no champion among your trustees, the case can be made to the chief executive for a comms expert to be recruited to the board. Otherwise, a comms-friendly trustee, with or without a relevant background, should be identified from among the existing board. 

Where neither option is viable and no one on the board has any kind of comms brief, the CEO and communications lead will need to work hard to ensure trustees understand, support and engage with comms at a strategic level. 

Get to board meetings

Trustees meet as a non-executive group, as well as with the chief executive, the whole senior management team, or individual department heads or staff. Often the CEO plays a bridging role, facilitating and being copied into any communications between staff and trustees.

One or more comms executives might attend board meetings in person, or may be represented by the chief executive, who conveys their input into a meeting and then feeds back on outcomes. 

To ensure a sufficient degree of status for the communications role, a comms lead should expect to attend regular meetings in person. Beyond this, they should be liaising closely with their chief executive and champion trustee.

As well as participating in board meetings, comms people can nurture individual relationships with their comms champion or other trustees. Sub-committees offer one useful channel for this. If your charity has no comms-related sub-committee and you think it could be helpful, raise the idea with your CEO.

Make the most of meetings

If you are regularly invited to board meetings, maximise the opportunity. Where attendance is not compulsory and the pressure is on, it can be tempting to make your excuses. But every time you do so, comms misses out on a voice at the top of the organisation.

Think carefully about what you want to achieve from the meeting before you attend and listen up while you’re there. It’s not enough just to report press stories or web traffic increases. Key things to get out of a meeting with trustees include:

  • Demonstrate fully the difference that comms work is making to the organisation and its goals
  • Discuss and/or agree new or potential projects
  • Listen actively to what trustees and fellow department heads are saying. You will gain broader, richer insights into the work of your organisation, which will feed back into comms work.
  • Make suggestions to influence other work areas. A comms perspective might add value to a non-comms activity
  • Offer comms solutions to governance and other problems where these might help.

Reduce resistance

Successful charities have a strong, influential communications function. If lack of access to trustees is an issue, the case must be made for a voice. There are many ways for a comms lead to go about building the argument:

  • Forge a strong relationship with your CEO and ask them for a seat at board meetings
  • Take every opportunity to demonstrate to the CEO and senior managers how strategic-level communications will help your charity achieve its goals
  • Demonstrate how strategic comms helps the charity mitigate against risk
  • Propose PR/media/comms training for trustees. It will help make them aware of the strategic importance of comms to the organisation
  • Identify any comms-friendly trustees and take every opportunity that comes to meet or communicate with them
  • Flag up potentially interested comms experts or comms-friendly people you know when trustee vacancies arise
  • Make sure any board-level submission you are asked to make demonstrates the value of your comms work to the organisation
  • Make sure trustees are on the mailing list to receive great examples of your team’s output.
  • Be your own ambassador.

This article is taken 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.