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Avoiding the Nefarious Misunderhearing

Carl from Caddyshack Misunderhears Gophers and Golfers
Misunderhearing Gophers and Golfers Nearly Leads to Disaster

My parents had good friends that often referred to spousal communication foul-ups as “misunderhearings”. The term is used by my family as it is an excellent explanation of the many times when one or the other of us is listening without hearing. Similarly, a nonprofit’s Board of Director’s may be listening intently to the information delivered by the executive staff but may not be fully comprehending the significance of the delivered messages. One of the best examples of a board “misunderhearing” that I have comes from my time leading a cancer nonprofit

A strong supporter of the cause secured us pro bono branding, marketing, and advertising services with one of the top companies in the world. Access to world-class creative talent was a dream come true for me as I believed that a company of this stature could help the cause and the organization break-out of the cancer charity pack and accelerate the mission of finding a cure. While we would not have to pay for the creative services, we did have to cover advertising buys and support costs. As such, the COO and I obtained authorization from the Board of Directors to proceed with the project.

I could not have been more pleased working with the firm from Portland, Oregon. The team was superb and produced a concept that I felt was extraordinary. At last, our cause was going to have the kind of edgy, out-of-the-box, attention-getting campaign that was going to engage previously untouched demographic segments and secure recognition for the organization to drive fundraising. Throughout the creative process, the COO and I updated the Board via email, pre-board meeting written materials and verbal presentations at quarterly board meetings. As campaign materials were completed, they were sent to the Board for review and comment. Finally, not long before public release, the Board voted to approve the final content of the campaign and the funds necessary to actualize it. Every vote was unanimous approval.

The firm kicked its efforts into high gear. The campaign rolled-out and quickly gained traction in the blogosphere and traditional media. Just as the social media component started to churn, some members of the board suddenly had misgivings about the campaign and actively worked to have it shut-down. This reaction mystified the COO and I as we felt we had worked diligently to not only inform the Board but to make clear how very different this campaign was going to be from anything they had seen before. It was incomprehensible to us that a group that had been provided all the information throughout the process would have “issues” after the campaign was released. By marketing and communications standards, the project was hugely successful within its short window of operation. However, shutting down the program became the only option to preserve the peace and the cohesion of the Board. We had just been a part of a classic misunderhearing. How then can nonprofit executives and their boards minimize the potential for a misunderhearing?

Techniques for Avoiding A Misunderhearing

Foster a culture of questions

For too many boards, meetings are financial reviews and programmatic updates. There is often a limited time for questioning. Agendas are tightly packed, and there is always more information to convey than time. Also, there is a reluctance to ask questions as they may extend the meeting, take it off topic or be politically sensitive. Where the Board and the executive team have a healthy relationship, there is a tendency to defer to each other. The Board should function as a “peer review” of the organization’s activities. Thoughtful questioning helps clarify objectives, illuminate potential opportunities, expose challenges and ensure that both parties understand the issues. Building a culture of questions requires first, a statement from the Board Chair or Chief Executive laying out the expectation that board members should actively engage in thoughtful questioning. All parties should understand that questions are critical to the success of the organization. Second, members should be encouraged to ask broad or open-ended questions rather than “yes/no." “How will this project increase the number of cancer advocates?” is a better question and will reveal more useful information than “Will this project increase the number of cancer advocates?”

• Choose Words Carefully

When communicating with board members, my colleagues and I thought that we were adequately explaining the nature of the campaign. We used phrases and terms like “out of the box” and “edgy” thinking that board members understood those terms in the same manner that we did. Unfortunately, one person’s idea of edgy is jaywalking, and another’s is fire walking. The differences in interpretation are substantial, and while we were well within the comfort zone of the fire walker, we did not realize that we were a good bit beyond the comfort zone of the jaywalker.

As our campaign developed, the board received a regular flow of detailed information. In many ways, there were few other communication's options without board members voicing specific questions or concerns. Careful word choices inform and educate, often triggering questions and comments that may help avoid future challenges or improve the product. The success of the organization depends on the board and the organization’s leadership working constructively and frank conversation is critical to that success.

• Delivering the Information

Every human has her/his favored learning style. While this predisposition does not prevent someone from utilizing other forms of learning, presenting information in multiple modalities enhances the potential for greater understanding of the topic at hand. Charts, graphs, and pictures will be useful for some board members while verbal presentations and written narrative will be useful for others. We found it helpful with prospective testing program sponsors to walk them through a flowchart of the event that was enhanced with pictures from other events to provide them a more concrete understanding of what a testing day would look like and how it would work.

Don't Be A Stranger to Your Board Members

Executive leadership should speak with board members individually on a somewhat regular basis. Informal conversations regularly reveal more critical information about the state of the board and board members than occurs at board meetings. Not only do one-on-one discussions help executives build relationships with their board members, but they also provide an opportunity to address concerns and answer questions that would otherwise not be made public for personal or political reasons. It is the unasked question or unstated concern that becomes the basis for a surprise vote or an unforeseen change of heart. Regular conversations build trust and help cut trouble off at the pass.

To learn more about misunderhearings, other board maladies and how to cure them, contact Skip Lockwood at or visit the website at Subscribe to the QL3 Strategies blog to be a part of the conversation about helping those that do good, do better.

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