The success of your nonprofit is forever linked to the strength of your board of directors. In our consulting work with nonprofits and international NGOs, the theme of board development—from recruitment, orientation, engagement, and reward—is a constant. And although nonprofits often enjoy the gift of caring, intelligent, willing board members, regrettably few organizations are effectively employing their boards in a proper external role.
Who better, after all, to tap into their own extensive business and social networks to tell your unique mission story than your highest ranking, long-standing volunteer champions?
However, the best ways to encourage your board to serve in this critical “ambassador” role are not always obvious. And you may not even be ready to tackle the transition from your current board to a fully energized, educated, external body. For example, you may be faced with a founding board that didn’t imagine itself in an external, expanding mode; you may have a culture and precedent of a board that is closely focused on internal operations; your board may be comprised of volunteers who didn’t necessarily feel that they were recruited to do outreach work.
But let’s assume yours is among the lucky organizations that are ready to turn the current board into a corps of enthusiastic, persuasive communicators of your mission.
1. Start with your board grid or an inventory of your board members. Do you have witty extroverts, excellent writers, seasoned educators, scientists, etc. that can strengthen your image in the community? Consider recruiting some communications professionals if you don’t have board talent in that area. Board members in banking services, the insurance industry, retail/hospitality, or almost any kind of sales are also naturals for nonprofit outreach roles since they already understand the power of networking and face-to-face contact.
2. Conduct some basic messaging exercises with your management team and a board communications/marketing committee, if you have one. What are the essential facts that you want the community to know about you? What misconceptions need to be addressed? What is the tightest, clearest, most appealing way to deliver this information?
3. Prepare a “toolkit” of printed or electronic materials that best tell your mission story, and make sure that brochures, DVDs, handouts, etc. are readily available on short notice. Make sure to balance both current program statistics as well as evocative stories so that your board members are fully prepared for a range of audiences (and the inevitable questions). Streamlining or simplifying tours of your operations may be in order too.
4. Train your board around these messages and tools, including role-playing and creative ways to tell your mission story. Remember that not every person is comfortable presenting information the same way; some would rather use a Powerpoint presentation and others might be more comfortable in an anecdotal, more informal venue. Think, too, about which board members would resonate with certain community audiences, from high school classes to Rotary Clubs to senior residential centers.
5. Set some achievable goals for the number of small group presentations or civic club meetings, trade shows, chamber of commerce events, etc. that your organization will reach each quarter.
6. Consider the system of “matching” a management staff person (i.e., development director or marketing director) with a board member to conduct outreach work together.
7. Clarify your media guidelines or process so that if your executive director would like to strengthen an interview or press conference by including a board member, everyone is clear on how the media should be encouraged and by whom.
8. Define the staff person (if it is not the executive director) who administratively supports the board’s outreach work. This may involve being the intake person for speaking requests, matching a board member who is available on that date, and confirming location and technology requirements on the day of the presentation. Make sure, too, that your development or marketing staff is managing the growing database of outreach-generated contacts that the board will be bringing in.
9. Allow time in the future for the board to give feedback to you on the messaging, toolkit, or support, and encourage them to coach each other as their outreach roles become more comfortable.
10. Remember to celebrate along the way, taking time at your next board meeting to thank individual board members who gave speeches, helped with a media interview, or opened doors to a new civic, church, or school group.
In your strategic and operational plans, you can now count on the previously untapped or underused resource of your board as a powerful force. A board of trained, well-equipped ambassadors will most certainly pay dividends in community awareness, volunteer recruitment, media coverage and of course your fundraising efforts.