Friday, January 10, 2014

Agenda item: Identify community connections

NOTE: In the spirit of making this blog's 2014 nonprofit governance agenda as practical as possible, I'm adding a new feature: the "governance agenda item." These brief posts will pose a priority, action item, critical question that moves the conversation forward.

Agenda Item 2:  Have open conversations about members' community connections

The board's boundary-spanning role - its outreach and advocacy work in the community - may be the most unique responsibility of nonprofit governance. It's also one that often is ignored, misunderstood or discounted.

We expect the staff of a nonprofit to speak positively about its work and its impact. Their livelihood depends, in part, on our believing their presentations. But the community leaders we elect to our boards have a different kind of credibility within their personal and professional peer groups.

It's different when our neighbor, the person who works in the office next door, the friend who sits in the pew across from us on Sunday, or a fellow member of our local civic group tells us about how that nonprofit is changing or saving lives. Because board members serve voluntarily, they experience no direct personal benefit from the nonprofit's increased support. Since we know them, we have a good sense of their trustworthiness and can evaluate their claims accordingly. We're more likely to believe what they say and offer support because of it.

That's why boards need to be sharing our story. Today's agenda item is a critical first step in making that happen: identifying the connections that board members bring to the table.

We don't often sit down and map out our web of relationships, so board members may initially think they have no personal or professional links to potential supporters of our mission. That's the purpose of this process: identifying peers and organizations within our networks with potential interest in our nonprofit's work.

The articulation process can be powerful. When I recently led a local nonprofit board through this exercise, members' initial instinct was to claim that their ties weren't particularly impressive or useful. They're humble community members, not particularly powerful or influential - certainly not connected to anyone who might be described as such. One board member, the youngest, was adamant that she didn't know anyone who might be supportive of the center and its work. 

I challenged that assumption. We started listing names. And names. And more names.

Their collective list of community leaders, donors and other potential supporters was long, diverse and impressive. It surprised those who created it. It was obvious that some were not only relieved, they were a little excited about the potential it represented.  We built on that enthusiasm and identified some initial steps they could take, collectively and individually, to begin some discussions. The board also committed to continuing the conversation and to exploring ways to engage high-priority prospects from the list.

Oh, and our young friend who was convinced she didn't know anyone? Her list of potential supporters was as long as her peers and included both a state legislator and a millionaire family friend with a strong  interest the agency's mission area.

What does your board's web of relationships look like? Start listing today and find out.

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