Monday, July 11, 2011

Sources of board stories

Where do board members find those great stories that energize people and prompt them to act?

I'm reflecting a lot on that question lately, as I continue to tweak my Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute workshop on boundary-spanning boards.

Our nonprofit stories are everywhere. Recognizing them, sharing them with board members (and other advocates) in appropriate ways, and helping them see how they communicate something compelling about your mission are the challenges.

As frequently happens in my life, a chance intersection with this topic popped up in an adult education text I was reading last week. In a chapter on narrative learning (in The Third Update on Adult Learning Theory), authors M. Carolyn Clark and Marsha Rossiter describe the power of stories this way:

"Stories...engage our spirit, our imagination, our heart..."

We can cite all the statistics we can generate. We can outline our services and describe in copious detail how they work. But we reach other people in ways that call them to act with our stories.

So where are the sources of these stories? Here are a few observations that I hope will be obvious to others:

The executive director. This person has the most expansive view of the organization - its impacts, challenges, successes. The CEO shares the ambassador role with the board and, as such, should have a good sense of what resonates with different stakeholder audiences. He/she is out in the community, talking about the work and tailoring messages to the unique interests of each group. The ED also has the closest working relationship with the board and is the person with the best opportunities to fill interactions with stories to inspire and illustrate.

The staff. Other staff members offer "front line" perspectives on the work and the clients served. They understand the needs, the points of pride, the connection of their work to the mission in ways that are different from the board and, to a large extent, from the CEO. With sensitivity to preserving confidentiality (for example, using client pseudonyms and composites), they can help illustrate organizational impacts in vivid ways.

Other volunteers. Like paid staff, volunteers offer a unique perspective of the work, from wherever they contribute to the organization. Some will be front-line volunteers, providing direct services, getting up close and personal with the mission. Others may serve in supportive role that give them a different sense of what it takes to move your nonprofit closer to its mission. Each offers a different layer of understanding of how the mission and vision are advanced and different lenses for seeing community impact.

Donors.  When board members participate in the development process, when they have opportunities to engage donors and listen to them, they have a clearer understanding of the kinds of stories that will matter to supporters. They also have a chance to engage those storytelling donors at a deeper level.

Clients and former clients. Introducing board members to current or former service recipients isn't always possible, given the need to respect client confidentiality. But when you do have someone, likely a former client, who is willing to offer his/her testimonial about the the role your organization played on his/her life and to share it specifically with the board, you need to make that happen. The closer your board gets to the impact you have on the community, the better members will be able to communicate convincingly with others.

Other board members. Board members have their own kinds of experiences and connections that draw them to your mission. Where do they find meaning in the work that they do? How have they found opportunities to expand their service and share their leadership in ways that move you closer to mission fulfillment? Members will find both common ground and expanded understanding amongst each other's stories. Finding time for stories - and any open space where such insights can emerge - will never be wasted board meeting time.

Direct experience. This last source isn't a "who" but a "how." When members step outside of the boardroom, when they have appropriate opportunities to encounter the work and the people of your organization, they not only have a chance to hear others' stories, they create stories of their own. I'm not inviting boards to peer over staff members' shoulders or nose around in client files. I'm not even encouraging board members to do front line volunteer work. I am suggesting that board members should be encouraged to participate - appropriately - in the life of the organization. There is no experience greater than firsthand experience when sharing with others.

There are many sources of stories with the power to inspire board members and those they will engage on your behalf. What kinds of stories does your board hear? How? In what context? What kinds of stories do they need to hear to help them relate more directly to stakeholder interests?

How can our board members hear and grasp stories that engage their "spirit..., imagination..., and heart...?" How can those same stories inspire board members themselves? I would be interested in your perspectives and experiences with this.

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