This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.
One of the most important roles of a nonprofit board member is community ambassador - reaching out to his/her networks and other constituencies to advocate and educate on your behalf. It's one of the most unique contributions board members can make: as volunteers and community leaders, they have a special kind of credibility that agency staff cannot have. When they speak, peers listen.
Unfortunately, board members often are ill-prepared for this vital community relations role. Worse, they frequently have no clue it's part of the job description.
How do we change that? How do we equip our board members and hold them accountable for community outreach work? What follows are my top 10 ideas for creating an environment to effective board ambassadorship.
1. Recruit people willing and able to reach out to others on your behalf. Board members interact daily with current or potential supporters in their personal and professional lives. They need to be able - and willing - to share your story with others in appropriate and compelling ways. How they accomplish this responsibility may vary; but they need to be okay with speaking up, and out, on your behalf in different settings. Recruitment criteria should include experience and/or willingness to engage in this work, in ways that are comfortable for them and valuable to you.
2. Immerse them in the vision and mission early and often. Among myriad other reasons for ongoing board focus on organizational vision and mission is the chance to develop deep knowledge and motivation to share your story with others. When your reason to exist and your vision of the future are clear and compelling to board members, they will be more excited about sharing them with others.
3. Articulate the different ways in which board members can act as boundary spanners. Lead the group in identifying specific ways to engage others on your behalf. Create a pool of possible activities, ranging from high-stakes and highly-visible activities, e.g., contacting legislators and speaking to civic groups, to more low-key actions, e.g., attending meetings and writing messages on your behalf. Ask them to commit to specific activities on that list, individually and as a group. Ownership of the goals increases commitment to seeing successful outcomes.
4. Help board members identify their connections. Sometimes, members may need a little help connecting the dots between their friends, colleagues, networks and agency needs. Raise individual and group awareness of the scope of their influence so that they can begin to identify whom to engage and how. During a board retreat I facilitated last year, we charged members with naming acquaintances with potential interest in the agency's mission. Two noteworthy outcomes emerged from that session. One, the board collectively generated a long and diverse list of personal and professional networks - and great potential to expand community support. Two, one of the quieter members, a former client, offered a disclaimer - "Well, I don't really know anyone..." - before marking off an impressive list of peers, community and state leaders, policy makers, experts in needed skills areas, and potential donors who would qualify as major by any definition. I'm not sure who was more surprised: the rest of the board or the young woman. Sometimes, we need a little help seeing the obvious.
5. Provide members with resources to share your story accurately and confidently. Board ambassadors need user-friendly tools to boost their interactions with others. Have readily available a range of tools to support board members engaged in community outreach, e.g., a set of talking points, business cards (personalized or agency contact information), brochures, and other collateral materials. This helps to ensure that what they share on your behalf is accurate and that they have something to leave with interested parties. Resources also may include training on how to communicate effectively with key constituencies (e.g., donor cultivation or public speaking). Ask them to identify what they need to feel confident and capable.
6. Offer anecdotes and stories that they can share on your behalf. Aside from their obvious role in board learning, stories provide evidence of your impact in ways more powerful than numbers alone. Share examples, stories of successful client experiences (respecting confidentiality, of course), and other qualitative evidence of your work with the board. When possible, have the original sources share the stories themselves (e.g., ask a former client who is willing to speak publicly to tell his/her story at a board meeting). Give members easy-to-remember stories to put a "face" to the work that you do.
7. Create regular opportunities to share their own stories and outreach experiences. Board members should be having the kinds of experiences worthy of sharing with each other. They need opportunities to articulate them in meaningful ways and to practice sharing them with a friendly audience. They may need help seeing that they have stories to share, which may come from hearing their board peers sharing their own examples. Ideally, your board meeting would be a place where that occurs naturally - they will be excited about telling each other about conversations and other community interactions. Realistically, it may be worthwhile to include member sharing in a regularly scheduled community outreach discussion.
8. Hold members accountable for this work. Once you've included community outreach work in the board member job description, make sure it is part of the group's evaluation process. Whether that assessment takes place annually, quarterly or monthly, make sure that you're asking members to reflect on their outreach efforts - what worked, what didn't quite unfold as expected, what goals are appropriate, etc. Set community outreach goals in the board planning process. More informally, when you know a member represented you at an event, made a call on your behalf, etc., ask that person to share what he/she did, with what outcomes, at the next meeting.
9. Look for venues to engage individual members in outreach. When opportunities arise to talk about your organization and its mission, resist the temptation to simply delegate that task to your executive. Instead, ask a board member to take that assignment, or to pair with the CEO as an outreach team. Ask a board member to attend United Way meetings or similar collaborative settings, alone or with your ED. Send a team of board members represent you at a city council meeting or legislative session. Assign board members to act as hosts at fundraising and other public events, circulating amongst the crowd, making personal connections with participants, volunteers, and donors. Spread the responsibility - and the potential for successful engagement - across the board. For most of us, practice makes community engagement easier.
10. Remind them that outreach/boundary-spanning is not a one-way process. Focus on telling our story, making our case, is the natural focus in this board function; but it's only half of the process. It's also important to listen and observe. Board members are our eyes and ears in the community. They have access to a broader swath of the community, and that access is at the peer level. They inevitably will hear and see reactions, concerns, ideas, support - the kinds of information and feedback that allow our organizations to respond effectively and, better yet, to anticipate problems and occasions for growth in a timely manner.