Board Email: Reduce, Reflect, Rejoice!

Most nonprofit boards use email, and most board members get driven crazy at some point by it. One such person -- Mary Broach, co-president of Impact100 in Philadelphia -- was getting 30 - 40 emails from other board members every day [yikes!], and she decided to draw up some guidelines:

Four ways to immediately reduce the number of emails:

1. For many items, pick up the phone first. If a topic is complex or nebulous, start by talking it over with another board member. That way a clear proposal (perhaps with alternatives) can be sent to everyone on the board. Or consider a conference call among a few people rather than an email to everyone on the board.

2. If you're mad or upset, wait 24 hours before replying, and think about using the phone to resolve the situation instead of sending an email.

3. If you get an email from someone who's mad or upset, don't "reply to all."

  • Bad: [reply to all] Your tone really bothers me and you don't understand the situation.
  • Better: [reply to one person] I'm not sure how to interpret this. . . could you elaborate what you're suggesting the board do?

4. Don't ask open-ended questions that will spark a lot of back-and-forth.

  • Bad: Do you think we should meet to talk? Who should come along? Where should we meet?
  • Better: Can the three of us meet about the agenda on Thursday at 9:30 at Milk Boy? If that doesn't work, how about anytime Friday morning?

Get your email noticed - the first time - by the other board members who also have too much email:

1. Use a purposeful subject line.

  • Bad subject lines: "Hi" or "Info"
  • Good: "Agenda for July 20 Impact100 retreat"

2. One topic per email -- that way people will know it's easy to read and respond. If multiple topics need to be covered, put them into numbered paragraphs so the responses will be easy to understand.

3. Put peoples' names in the "To" line, rather than addressing the email to an address group called "Finance Committee."

Demonstrate that you're email smart:

1. If you add another name to an email conversation in progress, be sure you also call attention to it: "I want to be sure X knows about this, so she has been copied on this email."

2. If you're the board chair or other leader, use "pre-emptive strikes" to streamline discussions:

  • Email from board member to all (typically tossed in at the end of an email on another topic): It occurs to me that we should consider changing our guidelines this year in line with all this.
  • Pre-emptive strike from board chair to all: I'll talk to X and other people who are interested in this idea and pull together some proposals to discuss at the September 14 board meeting.

3. Email is a postcard: don't put it in email unless you are comfortable with having it published. Avoid discussing lawsuits, your sister's surgery, or the incompetence of a fellow board member.

Mary Broach is co-president of Impact100 Philadelphia, an all-volunteer organization of 100+ women who each contributes $1,000, resulting in one $100,000 grant each year to a nonprofit, typically one that would not ordinarily be considered for such a large grant. Click here to see if Impact 100 is in your city. She is also the board president of Tabitha USA, an organization that raises funds for Tabitha Cambodia, a grassroots community development organization. She gets a lot of email, and in the photo you can see her taking her own advice on how to reduce board email.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (7)

  • Another good idea: when zillions of emails are zinging around in highly emotional tones -- is to declare an Email Moratorium for two weeks. We know one board president who did this and it calmed everyone down and made them talk to each other instead of writing another enraged, inflammatory email.

    Sep 03, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I LOVE this column - the advice is always sound and applicable. Thanks for a great article

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Well done on such a practical piece. It is interesting to see this is a universal phenomenon and can translate across the world. Useful components of an e-mail policy!

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Anonymous

    A practical piece that translates well universally. As non profits consider their e-mail policy reading this article is sure to make a difference.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Thanks for the comments, all! My sister just emailed about the article, and had another good point: "The only thing I'd add to this is to keep the emails to the people directly involved in the decision, and branch out from there after consensus has been reached. Often you get way too many people chiming in on an issue that isn't in their purview." (She couldn't resist starting off that email with: "Mary, your tone really bothers me and you don't understand the situation. Ha!")

    Oct 27, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Helpful guidelines for e-mails. I will share this with staff and board. Thx!

    Oct 27, 2010
  • Anonymous

    To cut down on emails, I tell my colleagues: "Don't thank me and I won't thank you." In other words, I request that they not respond to one of my emails with a thank-you email in return, when no response is really needed.

    Nov 04, 2010

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