Friday, February 21, 2014

Agenda item: Role-play community outreach

Agenda item 8: Use regular role playing and practice in preparation for advocacy work to build board member confidence and effectiveness.

What if I misspeak?
What if they ask a question that I can't answer?
What if I can't remember what I'm "supposed to say?"
What if they say no or, worse, attack me?

These are the kinds of questions that stand between a board member and the donor, service group, or public policymaker who needs to hear your story.

Many board members balk at fulfilling their outreach responsibilities out of fear that they will somehow fail the organization, imagining all the ways in which their attempts at outreach can go wrong. In reality, none of the scenarios above are common, or deadly to outreach, IF we've done our job and provided board members with the tools they need to speak credibly on our behalf.

That support can take many forms. Obviously, board members need quick access to, and working understanding of, information about services, clients served, and other mission-related details. They need to speak knowledgeably and credibly about the work that you do and the impact made in the community.

But they also benefit from being able to try on the ambassador role, practicing what they would say in a variety of scenarios. They need regular role-playing opportunities, both as the person practicing and the audience observing and imagining themselves in the same situation.

Role playing may not be everyone's favorite activity. That seat can be mighty toasty, even in a hypothetical situation surrounded by friends. But it's a reliable way to work with those scenarios where our confidence may be low, before members actually find themselves in front of a potential supporter or opponent. Playing out different kinds of interactions, and being able to talk about what we might do in that same situation, gives board members a chance to practice and to build confidence by meeting even a "worst case" head on.

Make role playing a regular part of several - or all - of your meetings. Include role playing in retreats and training sessions. It's rich, experiential learning that builds board member - and board and organizational - capacity. It need not be excessively time consuming. (And, no, it's not "fluff" distracting from "real work...") But practice, via both direct participation and in observing peers assuming roles, plant a different kind of expectation - of success - and, eventually, a different outcome that benefits the organization.

Here are three examples of ways to build role playing into routine board work:

When discussing projects that require board member outreach (e.g., testifying before city council or state legislature, visiting a prospective donor), include time to practice likely questions and productive responses.

Ask board members to express their worst fears about talking to donors and others about your work - let them lay out their own worst-case scenarios - and spend time acting out two or three of them. Discuss options for responses, ask about what the other party may be thinking as he/she responds in that (perceived negative) way, and analyze how members might be able to address those potential concerns, up front and positively.

Ask committees or work groups to create a scenario related to their responsibility area (e.g., fundraising or advocacy) that sparks board thinking about an issue requiring board discussion. Have committee members play the role of external stakeholders with an interest in the issue and ask other members to take turns engaging those "stakeholders" in productive ways. Make the scenarios real. Stretch members enough to challenge but not break. Be prepared to offer alternative paths to handling the situation in a way that supports your purpose.

Role playing can be a terrific resource for building your board members' confidence and capacity for successful outreach. It can help allay fears and create a vision of the kind of outcomes you want and need in community interactions. How can you begin using this process to engage your board?


Nancy Iannone said...

Role playing is most people's least favorite activity (including mine) but it can be very effective. It does require a commitment to take the time necessary to practice and process the results.

I've found that it helps to start with paired practice that is not done in front of the group. Once the pairs practice their scenario, they can share with the rest of the group what went well and where questions arose. Particularly for people who have never done role play, having the opportunity to practice away from the spotlight allows for focus on the issues, not their fears.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

That's fair, Nancy (and, yes, this is another thing we have in common!). However the practice is structured, it is the chance to have it that is important. I do believe there is value in observing others, as it gives us additional opportunities to work out in our minds what we would do in a similar situation - and offer suggestions in the moment. But pairs/ small groups or large, it's the practice and confidence building that matters.

Nancy Iannone said...

I appreciate that the point of the post is the opportunity that role play offers for practice and confidence building. There is potentially great benefit to the individuals involved and the organization.

I also agree that there is value in observing others, as well as giving and receiving feedback as a group. The different perspectives, questions and suggestions can lead to rich discussion and increased confidence for the entire group.

The reason I brought up the paired practice as a first step, was for readers who might be ready to dip a toe in the water, but not jump in to the lake yet :-)