Don't Fail To Communicate

"What we've got here is failure to communicate" is a once famous quotation from Cool Hand Luke, a movie I loved in my misbegotten youth. I think about that statement a lot in my work. Not so much that I feel that my clients and I have this sort of failure, but I see that there is huge failures of communication between staff and board, and staff and staff. Yesterday, for instance. The Executive Director had been complaining to me for some time that her board just “didn’t get it,” and did not do the things she needed them to do. When she told me that, I thought about something my sister had said to me many many years ago when I was complaining about my board. “Well, Janet,” she said, “are you doing the things your board needs you to do?”

That changed my whole attitude and the way I dealt with my board. Instead of simply stating what I wanted, expecting that they already spoke my language, I engaged in conversation with them, making sure to track that they were tracking with me and that we did not have a failure to communicate. Would that I had been so thoughtful about communicating with my staff.

As a consultant, what I’ve learned is that I must take ownership for clarity. I have to ensure that my client and I are using words in the same way—and if that sometimes makes me sound pedantic, oh well. Better that than a misunderstanding.

I also make sure that where possible I end meetings or conversations with a recap of what we discussed, what our next steps will be, and who is responsible. “We” will do it kills more action than any other word I know.

Along with verbally following up, I have found email to be my best friend. A follow up email, flagged for me so I don’t lose it, ensures that I can stay on top of checking that things get done in a timely fashion. If Sally is responsible for doing something by the end of the month, I can resend the original email a few days before her due date, reminding her of what she needs to do, and asking if I can help in any way.

That last can sometimes backfire as Sally tells me that, Oops; she didn’t get to it and could I????? I usually can, but I do always remind Sally that I get paid extra to do extra things. Sally usually decides to do it. You may not have my luxury.

The plus side of all this checking up is not just that things get done but my clients get to see what they really can do, and what they simply cannot. Board and staff learn to talk to each other and make sure that they are all on the same page. And we don’t end up with that failure to communicate.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and also to build stronger boards. Learn how she can help your organization at While there, subscribe to the monthly newsletter.