Nonprofit Board Members Have The Potential To Become Great Ambassadors!
By: Eugene Fram
There is no shortage of able communicators on most nonprofit boards. Directors usually bring a degree of passion, purpose and special abilities to their term of service. Many come from business or professional environments that require at least a measure of experience in advocacy, often referred to as “selling” an idea or product!
But rarely do Board Chairs and CEOs avail themselves of the opportunity to develop nonprofit directors as fully functioning ambassadors for the organization. With a constantly rotating board and emerging crises, it becomes difficult to find the time and energy to coach board members in the art of putting the organization’s public face on view. In some cases the CEO simply doesn’t encourage contact between the board and staff. At other times, they fail to include selected directors in important conversations with key public figures and/or major donors or foundation executives. Such omissions represent a major talent loss in the advocacy process.
Here are a number of ways to develop “ambassadorships” on the nonprofit board:
• The “elevator” talk: The board chair and CEO need to develop a carefully crafted short statement that quickly explains the purposes and impacts of the organization. Where possible, it should be used in board meetings and in staff meetings, because staff members also need to be ambassadors to their friends and relatives. It helps the whole organization to stay-on-message with those with whom they come in contact outside the nonprofit.
• Make certain board members have basic information on all the nonprofit’s activities and issues: Board members need to understand how the organization operates. Directors too often become involved with their own specialties (e.g., finance, marketing, public relations) that they fail to understand the big picture. Examples: If the mission of the board is to serve both the homeless and elderly, what parts of the organization serve each segment? How is a client served if both homeless and elderly? In governance operations, to whom does the audit committee report—to the executive committee, finance committee, executive committee or without these filters, directly to the board? Every board member needs clarification on these issues and why they are established in a specific configuration.
• Culture of the organization: “The culture of nonprofits is essential to building and sustaining nonprofit organizations that thrive. Culture is an intangible asset and a healthy culture strongly supports the work of the nonprofit. Conversely, an unhealthy board culture can undermine the best-intentioned efforts.” * Board chairs and CEO have a significant responsibility for culture building in this manner. They need to make sure that board members interact in a variety of informal situations, celebrations, meetings with the CEO, at retreats, etc. This has become a more difficult responsibility in recent years with many board members having time-compressed lifestyles. Board members can only become good ambassadors if they understand the nonprofit’s culture and how it is impacting clients, very important for 21st century funders.
• How to encounter resistance to the organization or misperceptions: Even the best nonprofits encounter these types of problems. To be effective ambassadors, every board member needs to be aware of these issues and how to respond to them. Humorous Example: Family Service agencies, multiplex nonprofits whose missions are to build strong communities and families, can be viewed by some potential clients as only offering birth control services—not a service item in its buffet of services! Some have changed their names to ones like “Families First.”
In this needy 21st century world, every nonprofit has a unique and often inspirational story to tell. With responsible leadership board members as ambassadors can articulate the work of the organization and provide outside validation for its positive impacts.
Another great article Eugene. I was having exactly this conversation with some Directors of a Board for whom I was doing a governance evaluation. I will share this article with them.
Thanks for your interest.
I think your comments on communication and culture are valid but I would go further and say everyone who works for a nonprofit, whether a volunteer or a paid employee, is an ambassador for the organization.This view is inherent in other strategies followed by organizations in areas such as ethical standards and, as with all things, the board sets the example for others to follow. Having said that, not every individual possesses the communication and political skills needed to effectively promote the organization to public figures, donors and other stakeholders.
It is important for a board to recognize that individual board members have different levels of management strengths and weaknesses across the many dimensions of management performance. The existence of management weaknesses within a board is not a problem if the different skills needed for efficient management are reasonably well balanced across the board.The important thing is to identify those board members who do possess good communication and political skills and have them play the major role in presenting the public face of the organization.
This ambassador role, as well as all individual roles and responsibilities, should be clearly documented and communicated to all board members so that conflict and confusion is avoided.
Thanks for adding to the discussion. I think that some people, volunteers, managers and board members need to develop a MODICUM of skills as ambassadors. Nonprofits need to conscientiously upgrade these skills where possible. Most nonprofits consider their employees as mission dedicated, but never think of them as ambassadors. I have published research in this area in the business arena. If you would like the citations, be pleased to hear from you. As an organizational scientist specializing in nonprofits you may be interested in my book just published in the last few days: Going for Impact: The Nonprofit Director’s Essential Guidebook, available on Amazon internationally. Assume you are familiar with the third edition of Policy vs. Paper Clips
I’m familiar with Policy vs. Paper Clips but not your new book. I’ll make a note of the title and look for it.
Thanks for your interest.