You’ve got to stop emailing your non-profit board members all the time!

duck1You know what Douglas Adams says (according to Brainy Quote). . . “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.” This quotation kind of sums it all up when I hear non-profit staff complaining about how disengaged their board members are, while they are in the middle of sending out another long email to those same board volunteers.

Let me start by telling you that I am one of the biggest offenders of overusing email. Guilty as charged! I need to seek help, but they say the first step in getting better is admitting you have problem.

My good friend (and former supervisor) used to remind me constantly that he believed email should be used as an “information tool” rather than a “communication tool“.

I spent many years contemplating this advice.

In the final analysis, he was saying email should be compared to snail-mail and the United States Postal Service. Email is like a stamp that you’re putting on a letter. He would advocate using email to send a document, but don’t use it to engage someone in a conversation about something.

I can almost hear him saying: “If you need to engage someone in something, then pick-up the darn phone!

Of course, I don’t see this issue as being quite so black and white. Email technology has made tasks like coordinating meetings and answering simple questions really easy. So, I guess I don’t completely agree that email is only good for sending out agendas, meeting notes, etc.


Many of us are overusing email and doing so in ways that result in disengagement. I understand this is a serious assertion, but stay with me on this one.

duck2When I look at my email inbox, I do a lot of scanning. I first look at the names of people who sent me something. As I do this, I am deleting anything that vaguely looks like spam or advertising. I don’t even open it. After this first purge, I re-visit those who are left standing and start looking at subject lines. I’m essentially trying to prioritize what I should open first versus leave for later when I have more time. And when I say “leave for later,” it could be days or weeks later.

(Confession time: at the time of this post, I currently have 1,027 unopened emails . . . I am truly embarrassed.)

I suspect some of you do the same thing. (Of course, de-nial isn’t just a river in Egypt as the old expression goes)

I also suspect that many of you are sending emails of all sorts to your board members’ work email address.

Finally, I am willing to bet that many board volunteers prioritize their work emails ahead of anything they get pertaining to their volunteer commitments. It is just a guess, but I think I’m on solid ground.

So, what just happened? You were put on the back burner regardless of how important you think your email might be.

In today’s fast paced world, I believe the technology revolution has created a new set of assumptions around communications:

  • If something is very important, it warrants a face-to-face meeting.
  • If something is pressing or needs to be discussed, it gets done by phone.
  • If something isn’t time sensitive, it gets put in an email or a snail-mail envelope.

Am I over-simplifying? Maybe, but then again I don’t think I’m too far off.

If you’re still with me, then it is hard not to conclude that sending lots of emails to your board members is the equivalent of sending them lots of unimportant stuff.

Choosing how and what and when to communicate with your board volunteers is important.

If you want to be relegated to the back burner of a board member’s email inbox, then keep sending those emails.

Here’s a suggestion . . .

  • Look at your board roster and select the names of your three most influential board members.
  • Sort your email outbox by name/email address
  • Count how many emails you’ve sent to each of those board volunteers.
  • If you’re averaging more than one per week, then you may want to re-examine how you communicate with them.

You may want to do a quick inventory of what you’re emailing board members. Once you develop a list, set-up informal policies for yourself on what is acceptable to email, what should be a phone call, and what needs to be done in-person.

The following are a few suggestions that I have:

  • Distribution of agendas and meeting notes — email
  • Checking in to see if a board volunteer completed something — phone
  • Getting buy-in from board volunteers on something — meeting
  • Coordinating calendars for a meeting — email
  • Checking to see who is still coming to a meeting (e.g. quorum call) — phone
  • Circling around to a board volunteer who was expected to make a meeting but didn’t show and needs to be “in the loop“– phone (possibly even a meeting over a cup of coffee)

There are lots of times that we shouldn’t be using email, but unfortunately we do it because it is convenient. If you have a moment, I suggest you read a wikiHow article titled “How to Know when Not to Use Email“. It is definitely worth the click!

Do you overuse email? Are you seeking a support group like me? LOL  What are you doing about it? Can you add to the list above regarding when it is OK to use email vs. phone vs. in-person meetings for various communications with board volunteers? Please scroll down and use the comment box to share. Your kindergarten teacher would be proud of you.  😉

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


  1. As usual, great post! Thanks for the reminder that email isn’t a great tool for true communication!

    That being said, I think there is also a case for knowing your board members well enough to know their preferences. For example, I have a board member who absolutely balks at any hard copies of any documents. I have a small group of board members who only pay attention to hard copies and never open an attachment to an email. I have board members who love getting reminders via text and others who prefer a phone call. The board is comprised of individuals from different professions, different walks of life, different generations. Their preferences in communications methods reflect that.

    My own preference is email or text for just about anything. Of course, as the primary source of communications, my own preference is low on the totem pole of priorities and I must accommodate the board, because I am responsible for ensuring that the board is, just as you assert in the blog, engaged by the communication rather than disengaged.

    By the way, one of the emails I send quite regularly to certain board members is a forward of your blog because I know they’ll be interested in the topics.

    1. Thanks, Dana!

      You couldn’t be more right about “knowing thy audience”. Thanks for reminding all of us that communication preference also enters into the equation. However . . .

      I would be a little wary of board members who say “Only send me stuff via email”. You may still want to decide what might require a “follow-up phone call” for important emails. Just a thought.

      And awwwwww shucks . . . thanks for forwarding my blog posts on to your board volunteers. Please keep doing that!!! However, I now wonder how many of those posts are sitting in the back of some people’s inboxes. LOL Oh well . . .

      Thanks for your readership and passion. I look forward to more comments from you. 😉

  2. Guilty as charged! 🙁 Between my Gmail account and my work email account I have around 1,700 unopened emails. I need to do better…

    1. Thanks for also sharing your thoughts using the comment box, Barry! I feel your pain and wish you the best in getting that unopened total down. If you find something that works for you, please circle back and share it with the group. We call all learn from each other. 😉

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