Monday, July 18, 2011

The (unexpected) perils of ambassadorship

Can there really be easy pitfalls that come with a board member's increased engagement with the community?

Usually, when I share my four additions to nonprofit board responsibilities, I gravitate toward the positive motivations and outcomes of members reaching out and sharing our mission with others.  Last week, though, members of a local board reminded me that there can be a bump or two along the way to this positive community outreach. In my zeal to emphasize the meaning-driven work and value of nonprofit governance, I tend to gloss over the natural cautions that board members also should know.

If you've recruited strategically, you've undoubtedly brought on board leaders who also are community leaders (with or without titles). They are connected. They have demonstrated a capacity to serve and accomplish what they commit to doing. People know them and listen to them.

The obvious good news: they are never without opportunities to tell your story, educate about your work, and advocate for your cause. If board leaders and senior staff are fulfilling our responsibility, we're encouraging individual members to get out there and share and holding them accountable for that community outreach work.

The (maybe) not so obvious caution: when their visibility as organizational leaders rises, so too does the expectation that their voice represents your voice. If we've recruited and educated well, our board members are passionate about the issues that we address as an organization. This means that they have knowledge and opinions - often strong opinions - about those issues. When the community connects individual board members and your organization, assuming that their voice is your voice is a logical next step.

Board members need to be mindful of this potential when they speak about the broader issues surrounding your work. In many personal and professional circles, when they speak, listeners may be hearing more than their individual message. They may also be hearing your organization's message. In most cases, that isn't a massive problem: the board member's personal view and your organizational message are one and the same (though greater consciousness of how they are speaking, when, and with whom will never be inappropriate).

The time will inevitably come when members' views don't dovetail perfectly with organizational messages or board decisions. That's where the challenge arises. Board members have a right to express their personal opinions; that comes with citizenship. What they must take care to do, though, is make it clear in speaking that the opinion expressed is theirs and not necessarily those of the organization.

Board members must represent the organization well and heed the call for one voice once a decision has been made. In an ideal world (from the nonprofit's perspective), board member views and organization messages would be one and the only messages an individual would feel compelled to share with the community. Board members need to remember that, for some people, they never take off the "nonprofit leader" hat. They are always representing the organization.

Board members, if you find yourself in this situation, stop, acknowledge where where you are and with whom you are speaking, and decide whether what you are about to say will help or hurt your organization's mission. If simply not speaking isn't an acceptable Plan B (and, please, think long and hard before rejecting that option. Really.), you have an obligation to clarify that the opinions shared are yours and yours alone. You are not speaking as a representative of your nonprofit.

If you're like me, you want to believe that this scenario is so rare that your board will never encounter it. But, as the board last week reminded me, it's not impossible. It need not even involve a particularly radical or controversial kind of situation to create the potential for trouble. (The example they shared would absolutely be a somewhat common occurrence for many community boards.)

My counsel is this: Have this discussion - regularly - with your board. Talk about the importance of respecting the group's decisions. Debate that stretches thinking and leads to thoughtful and considered decisions is healthy. But once a decision is made, it's made. The group speaks with one voice. Second message I would discuss with the group would be the importance of remembering and respecting their ongoing role as organizational spokespersons. Attention to the continuous nature of that ambassadorial role will help encourage them to be mindful of what they are communicating, where and with whom.


Nancy Iannone said...

You raise an important point, and one that Community Benefit organizations and their boards sometimes overlook.

It isn't only what the board says but how they behave that can be an issue. The board member who is abrasive in public or regularly drinks at a local bar may never consider that their personal behavior is viewed through the lens of their organizational involvement.

Another good reason for strong recruitment and orientation practices that include organizational values and clear expectations.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I appreciate the feedback, Nancy, as always. It does seem to fit a larger issue we've discussed here before, and that you raise here: we don't often understand the breadth of the responsibility we assume when accepting a position on a board. It is an awesome (as in "significant," not "way cool") leadership burden - filled with meaning and potential fulfillment - that quite literally impacts the future.

You're absolutely right about this reinforcing the need for thoughtful recruitment, and clarity re the values and expectations that should drive that process.