Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Who needs to know about our mission, work?

Who needs to know about our mission? How can the board facilitate those connections?

The board's outreach impact is one of the more important - and unique - contributions it can make. As community leaders and peers, they bring a kind of credibility that paid staff cannot have. High-impact board outreach also is a role that requires a bit more support and deliberate focus, because it isn't necessarily a high-practice, high-confidence area for many members.

Most board members already know that community outreach is a core responsibility. But they likely also bring with them a mix of hesitations that may feel paralyzing. Some of the more common, in my experience:

  • Low confidence in their ability to deliver your story in polished, accurate, compelling ways.
  • Fear that someone will have questions that they are unable to answer.
  • Anxiety about being expected to "make the ask" - financial or otherwise.
  • Being met with apathy or worse, antipathy.

Been there. Felt that. All of that. For most of us, if we are supported and involved in authentic ways (not all of us are, or should be, public speakers) those fears will be largely unfounded.

Because they are out and interacting in the community personally and professionally, board members  have more connections and storytelling opportunities than they realize. I've witnessed the power that comes when a board responds to some version of the first question, "Who needs to know about our mission?" Beginning with that broad question asks board members to reflect on the full range of stakeholders with some existing or potential vested interest in your mission and its outcomes.  That discussion clearly is a foundational one.

I've similarly found surprising outcomes when we take that question a step deeper: asking who they know - as individuals - who needs to be connected to our mission.  To bring this conversation to its full potential clearly requires thoughtful planning and member support. But I've also seen how simply asking the question and recording what pours forth sparks something important for this work: a sense that they can make meaningful connections for you and your mission.

I've probably told this story here before, but it's germane today and worth a repeat. A few years ago, I facilitated a "who we know" discussion for a board considering a capital campaign. The goal was simply to pick members' brains while also creating visual evidence that they weren't starting from a deficit position. One member was particularly certain that she didn't know "anyone," had nothing to offer, and could never contribute anything meaningful to the anticipated campaign.  She was certain to the point of outright, dig-in-her-heels resistance to the exercise.

We took a step back and reviewed the group's collected list of mission contributions. Then I asked her, "Who in your life cares about this?" "What about this one?" "Who has a vested interest in seeing this happen?" Slowly but surely, this board member (who, on paper at least, really shouldn't have "known" anyone) named a mile-long list of personal relationships with people who could not only write a check but support the agency and its mission in other ways that matter. Think public policymakers, judges, foundation executives, educators and more. Most of us only dream of having the kinds of legitimate connections that this woman had within her immediate circle of friends, family and acquaintances.

We just need to spark their brains and encourage them to think creatively about making those authentic connections between individual stakeholder interests and our mission needs.

The second question also must be addressed if we want our board members to succeed in their boundary-spanning work. As is the case with the fundraising function, there are different ways to share your mission story. Sure, it's great to have board members willing to stand at the front of a room full of people and make your case for support. It's wonderful (and powerful) to have board members willing and able to reach out to legislators and other policymakers on our behalf.

But board members can contribute to this work in a variety of ways. Helping each one identify what roles come naturally - and what realistic stretches they would be willing to try - helps you know how and when to support them along the way. Those bullet points above are experienced can be real, even if they mostly exist in our heads.

Work with members to identify the additional knowledge, tools, practice, etc., they need to feel fully confident and ready to step up on your behalf. Provide opportunities for role playing and other practice to build confidence and comfort with what you ask them to do. Commit to supporting them, and to them supporting each other, and build their capacity to support you in new ways.

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