Pick Up the Phone

In a similar theme to my last post where a nonprofit CEO discusses the stresses of being remote, in this story, a nonprofit board chair shares how she discovered that the best way to solve issues between people is to pick up the phone, schedule a zoom call, or meet in person to talk things through. She reflects that we have gotten out of the habit of interacting in real time, instead relying on email which can be easily misinterpreted. She also notes that going forward it is important to create times for casual personal interactions.

We need real-time connections

We Need to Stay Connected

As told by a Board Chair somewhere in the US.

I am chair of a medium sized nonprofit. I became chair before lockdown – in January of 2020 – and they asked me to stay on for an additional term because it is such a challenging time and there are so many things in transition. I said I would do this. I work well with the ED.

This organization was able to offer our services in a hybrid fashion. Some of our staff went remote. The ED gave that option to anyone who wanted it. People with kids or health issues could not be in person. Others  stepped up. So, some people changed roles. It was heartening to see. I think that hybrid will be the model going forward. Some people really like working from home. Others do not. These last few years have really changed how we all think about work.

The ED reports that they try hard to stay connected. They have done a few things. In the beginning, they held a “virtual happy hour” every week so people could stay in touch and chat casually. We all thought this pandemic would be done after a few months. Who knew? Anyway, after a while, they moved the happy hours to twice a month as everyone got zoomed out. I think they still do twice a month. Each session, someone organizes a game or an ice breaker. Sometimes they break into subgroups, sometimes not. Last year, when we were all vaccinated and thought we would be together again soon, they had some outdoor events in person. That was good.

Building Trust Requires More than Short Ice Breakers

I wish I had done the same with the board. We moved meetings online which increased attendance. I plan to keep them online, though the next Board Chair might make a different decision.

We do have brief ice breakers as well as a mission moment at the beginning of each meeting. But we miss the social time we used to have before board meetings or during our retreats. And we had brought on quite a few new board members during these last two years. Some I knew from before but some I have never met in person. I have not gotten to do that “chit-chat” you do to know more about where they are from or what hobbies they have, or even if they have a family or a pet! Okay, you see everyone’s dog or cat in zoom calls, but you get the idea. I do not know all of the board members well and they do not know me. Because of that, there is not the trust we need to be prepared to make tough decisions. There is also not the knowledge of each other’s styles – who is direct, who is funny. This does not always come through online.

Emails Can Create More Problems than They Solve

We were planning an online event. There was a committee with both staff and board. One of the board members on the committee was a new one. I will call her Sue. I had not met Sue before. She brings a lot to the board, She is smart, engaged, and experienced with fundraising. She provides good input at board meetings. Anyway, she had strong opinions about how to do the event, and she was very outspoken. I appreciate when people are direct. And I appreciate when they advocate for their point of view. But when things did not go her way, Sue started sending emails to everyone on the committee and people got upset. Then in one meeting – it was a zoom meeting – she said some things to a staff person that were really uncalled for. This wasn’t a racial thing or a sexist thing. They were both white women of about similar age. It was someone being strong willed and thoughtless. And maybe it was a power thing – a board member talking to a staff person.

After, there were lots of emails going around about how horrible it was and it fell to me to reach out to Sue. I wanted to respond thoughtfully. I was not on the original call, so I sent emails to the people who were to ask what happened. Then I drafted an email to Sue. I wanted to get the tone right, so I sent a draft of my email to my vice chair and the ED. Both made some edits.  I sent the updated email off to Sue.

Sue did not respond well. She wrote a long email back not only defending her stand on how the event should go but about how she acted in the zoom meeting. She was angry. She copied the ED, the members of the event committee which included staff, the full board. Things were getting out of hand. Emails were flying.

Wait Before Sending an Email – Then Talk in Real Time

I drafted a response to Sue’s email which I again sent to the ED and the vice chair to review. But then I decided to wait – it was the weekend, and I am a volunteer. I don’t need to answer every email in an hour. Waiting was a good idea. Because it came to me that I should just set up a zoom call to talk to Sue directly. I should have done that before. With zoom, we can see each other, and I can tell if she understands or misunderstands what I am saying in real time. I can explain if I am unclear. I realize if I had done that in the beginning, things probably would not have blown up the way they did.

We had a call that Monday. It was a long call and a bit tense. She did not know me well, did not understand my style, and did not particularly trust me. Turns out there was just one sentence in my email that really set her off. In the end, she better understood how she was seen by others. And I better understood why she was so passionate about her ideas. We were able to reach some compromises. She apologized to the staff person. And we got back on track.

Lessons Learned

I learned some pretty important things from this situation.

First, pick up the phone, arrange that zoom call, or — now that things are opening up — have coffee or a walk. I know we get stuck sending emails, all secluded in our home offices or wherever we are. And we forget that we can and should reach out to people directly.

Second, be careful with email. I learned that it is really easy to misinterpret emails, even when you spend a lot of time trying to get the wording right. People can get stuck on one sentence or phrase or even word and not pick up on the overall message.

Third, make space for casual interactions. I realize I had made a big mistake in not making sure there is adequate time for people to get to know each other. As I said, I think we will keep most of our meetings online. But I am going to make time to add social aspects to the meetings and to have some meetings that are purely social. I am also going to try to meet one-on-one with every board member – in person if I can or via zoom – at least once a year. I need to build trust.

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