Sunday, June 5, 2011

Engaging community for our mission

Yesterday, I facilitated a retreat focused on work that I've not been called upon to help a board address before: community engagement and resource development.

As a student of nonprofit governance - and someone who believes boards should devote far more energy to engaging the community in support of their missions - I was struck by what unfolded in that five-hour period. With sensitivity to protecting confidentiality, this post is a personal reflection on how that board successfully laid the foundation for critical boundary-spanning work.

Our goal for this retreat was not to come up with an ultimate list and detailed plan of who'll-contact-whom-for-what. That type of outcome in a relatively brief time frame is neither realistic nor desirable. Instead, we created a space to identify the agency's existing and needed resources (while not creating one long "to do" list for the executive director). We also devoted time to beginning to reflect on individuals and groups within the board's existing sphere of influence and to identifying key community supporters to whom they do not currently have natural access. This was only the first step in a long-term community engagement process led by the board.

We started our work spotlighting resource development. By the time we moved to community engagement, members had basic consensus around organizational need areas and opportunities to connect with others with both interest in the mission and capacity (of all types) to offer support.

Not directing everyone to a particular resource need in the initial community engagement activity was important and instructive. As expected, each person chose a different area - a great thing. While the board is jointly accountable for the big picture, individual members will be able to lead specific facets of governance, especially those that fit their talents and passions. This micro-sized activity reinforced that message for us.

In terms of the pool of potential supporters raised in our initial discussion? The broad spectrum of supporters and their interests identified by the board bodes well for their ability to engage widely and deeply in the future.

Because the group drifted a bit in the direction of an anticipated fundraising initiative in this first discussion, in the next step, we asked them to identify distinctive ways to invite their peer groups to engage without asking them for money. I hope that this reminded members that successful development processes are built on strong relationships. I also hope that it reinforced that there are many ways to build support and involve the community beyond asking for a financial contribution.

Since this was the first time I had facilitated this type of retreat experience, my attention to details not likely on participants' radar was high. One observation that stood out for me was the importance of acknowledging the value of every potential engagement opportunity. For example, one member prefaced sharing her list of people she knew with a disclaimer, "I don't really know anyone...." She then listed an amazing array of personal and professional connections any board member should be proud to bring to the organization. If we've successfully recruited a board diverse in background, expertise and experience, members will carry ties to an even more diverse quilt of the community, with varying interests in seeing us advance our mission. Appreciating that breadth, and individuals' contributions to that process, is essential.

Our work on Saturday was only a brief jump-start to a larger community engagement effort. The board got that. They identified next steps that flowed naturally from the day's work and realistic commitments to move forward as a board to expand the agency's foundation of community support.

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