Ambassador, champion, fundraiser! Board members should be all of these for their nonprofit. But sitting around a conference table discussing policy and reading financial forms will never generate the passion needed to transform someone into an articulate advocate for an agency and its programs. What does generate dedication among Board members is contact with those agency’s clients and programs.
Board members can sit and talk about poverty as a concept, but it is better that they meet the people being serviced, to see their worth, need, and gratitude. As ambassadors, they can speak from personal experience.
Program site visits add another layer to understanding the value of the programs provided by the organization. They are not just providing a service — a meal, a bed, a training class – but human contact and assurance that things can be better. The Board learns to see programs as so much more than statistics, now they see a person, a face, a life. Board members who visit programs no longer parrot canned speeches about the good being done. They give heartfelt accounts of their own experiences and observations. Getting them away from the numbers on a financial statement and allowing them to get their hands dirty helps!
At some organizations, all new board members are required to visit the agency’s programs. One day a month is reserved for board members and their friends to help provide services. Hands-on visits are also used as a means to recruit potential board members, given that people participating in such visits already have an interest in the organization’s mission. Volunteering is an invaluable point of entry for potential Board members.
But it’s not just about public relations. It’s about good decisions. The board can make better decisions if its members have seen the programs, met the clients, and understand on a personal level who the people are and how they will be affected by their decisions.
The board makes better decisions—and more informed difficult decisions—if they are balanced with personal knowledge of the programs affected. Even in good times, making strategic decisions based on front line experience leads to better decisions, and ones that are more in line with an agency’s mission. The true reward for board service is not seeing names scrawled in gold leaf across a marble wall, but making a difference.
Engage the public
The voices of board members are not the only source of public information about nonprofit organizations. Social service agencies become known through newspaper articles, public advocacy, published studies, reports or position papers, activities within the communities where they operate, and even lawsuits.
Good organizations build relationships with those who need information about their area of expertise. If you serve the homeless, be the go-to agency for information about the issues facing the community and the policies that are the most effective in addressing homelessness. If you serve victims of domestic violence, prepare and present reports and testimony on that topic.
Each year one agency engages in a public awareness program that responds to changes in the community and the clients being served. Board members help by bringing in people with media expertise or by using their own connections, such as contacts with city hall, to directly help the agency’s outreach program.
Experts suggest a broad range of techniques:
- Write an op ed piece.
- Hold a press conference, inviting an expert in your program specialty to join you on a topical issue.
- Testify at public hearings about budgets or laws that affect your client base.
- Reach out to a specific reporter or news director, and eventually those people will reach out to you.
- Make the job of reporters as easy as possible by having reports, statistics and contact information for clients, board members, and staff willing to be interviewed.
- Meet with candidates for office as well as those who already hold positions.
- Keep in touch with other agencies that serve your clients, such as those offering shelter, food, or education. Work together to educate the public, media, and politicians rather than attempt all the heavy lifting yourself.
- If you are starting a program in a new neighborhood, meet with community associations well ahead of time so your arrival won’t become an issue.
- Where possible, have former clients speak at fundraising events and interact with potential donors.
- Create a speakers bureau to visit schools and community groups.
Opportunities for valuable, unpaid media coverage and a strong positive public image can only happen if you are ready, have a reputation as having your finger on the pulse of your own community and areas of service, and have someone ready to speak on your behalf. Arm Your Allies In Advance!