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Out of the Email Abyss: 3 Questions for Better Board Communication

Often email messages feel like they enter a black hole. Messages from staff are sent to board members and the board’s responses lag. This is frustrating for Executive Directors and their teams, and it means that board members aren’t being as impactful as they could be.

It’s not only staff who are frustrated. Board members may receive multiple emails with limited context or emails where it’s unclear what kind of response would be most beneficial to staff.

How can staff use this important communication tool more effectively to get the responses they need and promote board engagement? Let’s look at a few simple questions to reduce frustration and improve outcomes.

1)      Is the email an FYI?

If yes, label it FYI in the subject line. In the body of the message reiterate that it’s FYI and then share why you’re sending it, and that there’s no need to respond. Can’t come up with a reason you’re sending it? Don’t. But if you thought it was interesting, or valuable, or provided an alternate perspective, say so. Then it’s up to the board member whether they take the time to read it.


2)      If it’s an FYI, do you need to send it now?

If it’s timely or relevant to something the board is discussing, send it now. Otherwise, save it for a “roundup,” monthly update, or other regular board communication - or don’t send it at all.


3)      If it’s not an FYI, the email needs a response. But what kind?

  • Is this an area where you need new thinking, or do you want the board to weigh in on ideas that you/the staff have formulated?

  • Do you need directional input or a decision?

  • Do you need a yes/no or a detailed response?

  • Sometimes, it’s helpful to specifically say what you don’t need (for example “I don’t need line edits” or “a reminder we decided on the direction and now I need you to weigh in on which of these options we choose”). Being specific saves board members time and mental energy; it will help you receive more precision in responses and fewer responses outside the bounds of what is asked.

    • A note on detailed edits: if you want detailed edits, it’s probably best to only send a document to 1-3 board members/advisors whom you feel excel at this type of feedback.

  • Can you list a few specific questions for board members to address? If you need directional input, instead of “let me know your thoughts,” what are the specific questions you have? Numbering your questions is helpful. Limit it to 1-5 questions, and once you’ve drafted those questions, if you have 4 or 5 questions think about whether they are all important and/or whether email is the best way to garner feedback. Perhaps it’s time for a meeting or a call instead.

  • For the response: by when do you need an answer? Be specific. And if it’s relevant, indicate timing – for example “end of business day” or before 5pm. Volunteer leadership often respond after they’ve finished their own professional responsibilities, so “on Thursday” may mean you get responses at 11pm. When possible, try to ask for things in advance. You can ask for responses by end of day Thursday if you’re planning on reviewing something on Friday, rather than asking for them “by Friday morning.” By the same token, if you’re on a tight timetable and you need to state a specific time, you should.


When the staff models good practices, it sets the stage for board members to appropriately respond and to operate within the bounds of the organization’s culture. This isn’t to say if a board member observes something outside of the questions the staff posed, they shouldn’t raise them, but it does help focus their attention on what the staff most needs. The boundaries you set will also enable them to respond more effectively if they disagree with what you’ve asked. Stating your questions explicitly helps a board member examine whether they should push back on your idea or whether it’s not essential at this moment. Not every board member has a strong level of self-awareness, but these practices help create conditions for building the type of responses the staff needs to be effective and help the board be more impactful in their responses.

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