How can communications help you recruit and engage board members?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, talks with Rob Acton, founder and CEO, and Erin Pierson, director of strategic growth, from Cause Strategy Partners to discuss how to engage board members in marketing and communications from recruitment through board service to alumni status.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re talking to not one, but two great folks all around the topic of communications and board members. Literally, we will be asking the question, “How can communications help you recruit and engage board members?” For those of you who may be out there and listening to all of the Smart Communications Podcast, you may recall back on episode 135, I spoke with Brooke Richie-Babbage all around, what does it actually mean to show up as a good board member? And I suspect our guests have thoughts on that topic as well, but we’ll dive in and see what they have to say.
Farra Trompeter: So first, I’m joined by Rob Acton, who uses he/him pronouns. Rob is the founder and CEO of Cause Strategy Partners, a social impact tech-enabled company and consulting firm that powers its signature programs, BoardLead, Concierge Board Placement, and BoardLearn. Cause Strategy Partners has placed, trained, and supported more than 2,200 professionals for board service at 1,200 nonprofit organizations across the United States, United Kingdom, and beyond. Rob is a recognized expert on governance and has served on numerous boards, including currently serving as board chair of New York City’s Broadway Inspirational Voices, and on the board of directors of Nonprofit New York. He’s also a member of The Bar in the State of New York, so we’ll see if we’ve got any legal questions to throw his way.
Farra Trompeter: I’m also joined by Erin Pierson, she/her. Erin is the director of Strategic Growth of Cause Strategy Partners. She works directly with Board Leads, corporate foundation and nonprofit partners helping to scale the program and coach new board members in their organizations on best practice governance strategies. Erin previously worked in arts production and nonprofit development. Erin holds an MPA from the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU and earned her BFA in Art and Art History from Colgate University. Erin and Rob, welcome to the show.
Erin Pierson: Thank you. Looking forward to this.
Rob Acton: Thanks Farra, it’s great to be here.
Farra Trompeter: I also have a graduate degree in Nonprofit Management and periodically I’m an adjunct over at Wagner. So good to be connected. But Erin, I don’t think we’ve ever had a chance to be together in an academic space. But one of the things that I often think about with boards and nonprofits are life cycles, and how things kind of often happen in phases. And I just want to start by thinking about the board member cycle. There’s the time when the board member’s thinking about joining you, participating on the board, terming off the board, and becoming an alumni. So imagine there are these four phases in consideration, participating, terming off, and alumni. Let’s just start off by talking about how communications from nonprofits to board members show up in all those phases from recruitment to engagement to ongoing cultivation. Rob, what comes to mind for you on this?
Rob Acton: Yeah, when we talk to our board candidates about exploring a board service opportunity, I think nonprofit leaders should keep in mind in the recruitment phase that they’re starting from a blank slate. That candidate really knows very little about the organization and in fact, the candidate will step into the middle of act two of a movie, if you will, right? There’s characters, there’s a plot line, there’s a whole story that’s gone before and a story that we hope to tell in the future. And so communication really becomes kind of a critical part of the board development process to help the candidates understand what the opportunity looks like, how they themselves can be useful in joining the board and helping achieve mission, and then really just helping them ramp up to speed. But one of the things I like to say to nonprofit partners when they’re recruiting board candidates is to aim high and give folks a challenge.
Rob Acton: In my experience, high-capacity professionals really want to be leveraged at a high level. They’re not joining a nonprofit board because they’re so excited to read the balance sheet or spend a lot of time in the P & L. They’re joining because they want to be a part of mission achievement. They know their own skills, they know their network, they know where they can drive value. And so think about in the board recruitment process, think about how that candidate could best leverage their skills and network uniquely for the nonprofit and make that pitch. I’ve really seen that work time and again where I remember once connecting a Emmy award-winning reality television show producer to a nonprofit organization, and I could tell about halfway through the pitch meeting that the candidate was just bored. You know, he is hearing about the meetings and the committees and the galas and whatnot, but when we got around to talking about how this organization is “New York City’s best kept secret”, you know, and what you do is tell stories and, and could you tell the story of this organization?
Rob Acton: You literally saw him come to life and his eyes open up and him to just start to generate idea after idea. So in the communication phase of board recruitment, tell that story and make that direct connection around how the candidate can drive value. Second phase, you mentioned Farra is participating, and for me one of the big things to keep your eyes on as a nonprofit CEO, is how you can tell the cadence of communication in a way that board members can receive it. We have to just remember that board members are volunteers, they’re very busy, they don’t have a great amount of time often to invest in the organization. So what is the right amount of information to give them? How frequently should it be delivered? In what form should it be delivered? How can you make sure they have access to what they need to govern, shepherd, and lead an organization well without overwhelming them?
Rob Acton: I’m a huge fan of board dashboards for that reason, one-page PowerPoint dashboards that board members can receive and really understand sort of key performance indicators, how we’re doing against benchmarks and the like so that they can perform their job effectively. And there’s a lot of resources, including a really terrific one from BoardSource around how to build a board dashboard. Terming off you mentioned. Yeah, so terming off is definitely easier than involuntarily removing a board member. We try to avoid that at all cost. Of course, terming off is not so difficult, but sometimes we do have to have difficult conversations with board members who just are no longer getting the job done. Maybe they’re not meeting their sort of basic fiduciary responsibilities or their duty of care. Somebody has to have that conversation and ideally, it won’t come as a surprise, right, that you’ve set that conversation up.
Rob Acton: The board member’s sort of aware that they’re not meeting their core obligations and eventually sort of broaching the subject. I try to put it in their words instead of my own, you know, and say, it looks to me like you really just don’t have the time anymore. I know you got a big promotion, I know some things are happening in your family and it’s going to be understandable if you need to back away a bit from your commitments at the organization. I’ve found that usually people are relieved when somebody broaches it. They’ve probably thought they need to and they just couldn’t find the words to make that statement because they’re committed to the cause. And then I’ll wrap up. You mentioned alumni, sort of former board members as a stage in the board development process, continue to cultivate those folks. You probably have no better champions than folks who served on your board year after year, and gave, and fundraised, and advised. They can continue to be donors and advisors and champions of the work. So keep those communication channels open. I really like the idea of considering them a special class of donor because they’ve demonstrated such commitment over the years, and think about how you can continue and engage them from a communication standpoint.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. I actually want to circle back to one of the things you said, and I don’t know if you’re going to agree or disagree with me here, but when you were talking about that moment in the recruitment phase, when someone is considering joining the board and you’re trying to make a compelling case for them to join the story you outlined. Tell the story in a way that someone’s eyes are going to light up and they’re going to want to participate. There may also be a time when if you see that person’s eyes glaze over when you’re talking about the meetings and the galas and everything else, maybe they shouldn’t be on the board. Maybe they should join a committee. Maybe they should become an advisor to the communications team or the development team or something else that, you know, for some people, board service may not even be a fit and that’s also an important conversation. But so I’m curious what you think about that.
Rob Acton: Agree a hundred percent. I mean, nothing is more important than a board candidate really having a deep commitment to the mission of the organization. In fact, we counsel our Board Lead candidates when they’re meeting with their nonprofit for the first time, the organization they’ve been matched to, to make that personal connection, talk about your life’s experience, your values, the thing that’s driving that passion to serve on this board. And if you’re not picking that up from the nonprofit leadership side, either ask about it or recognize that as probably not a strong candidate for your board. Look, you give so much in board service of your time, your talents, your treasure, your network. You have to be deeply motivated to stay engaged with that organization or it just won’t have lasting power. And so I think exploring that mission fit is a really critical part of the board recruitment process.
Farra Trompeter: Okay, great. Yeah, I know we’re focusing on communications, but I had to jump in with that, so it sounds like we’re on the same page there.
Rob Acton: Absolutely. Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: Well, let’s keep talking about board members themselves. I know that you believe, both of you, that there are certain key roles and responsibilities that board members play and that they have to fulfill. And oftentimes, I think we always talk about fiduciary responsibility and like you said, reading those P & L’s and understanding, you know, how the organization is doing. But I’m curious, when it comes to communications, what do you think, is getting involved in communications a must for a board member or a maybe? Erin, what do you think?
Erin Pierson: I think it’s a must, but I think it looks different for every board member. When I think about how board members get involved in communications, depending on their various backgrounds, there are sort of three different levels. At the absolute base, every board member needs to be able to kind of tell the story of the organization, and especially the story of why they’re there. I think on a quarterly basis, the board that I’m on, our opening exercise is just going around the table and reiterating the story of what brought us to Art House. And I think that’s a really important opportunity not only to kind of onboard and welcome other board, new board members but also just sort of reiterate and refamiliarize ourselves with why we’re here. As you kind of move up the line, I think it’s also critical for board members to just get a general sense of the status of communications and marketing for the organization.
Erin Pierson: I think one thing that board members are really good at is big ideas, but oftentimes nonprofits are potentially resource-strapped when it comes to marketing and communication. So getting a sense of what’s capable and where the strategy should lie or at what scale their ideas should be at, I think is important for board members as well. And then ultimately, if you happen to be that person on the board who’s coming with deeper communications and marketing expertise, being that strategy person partnering with the CEO and being as we call them, the sort of champions of functional areas of excellence, playing that consulting role can be a huge, huge asset to the organization.
Farra Trompeter: Great. What about you, Rob? Any thoughts on this topic?
Rob Acton: I think it’s how you define it. I actually don’t think every board member should be speaking into communication functions. For example, I’m a lawyer and I do governance work, so you don’t really want me talking too much about your marketing strategy or social media strategy. A lot of those things strike me as an executive function, not a board function unless a board member has deep expertise. And then totally agree with Erin that you kind of become that thought partner with the organization around how to amplify the excellence in your communications plan. That said, if communications means telling stories and making the connection between your passion for the organization to the outside world, then absolutely. I served for 10 and a half years as a nonprofit CEO of two different organizations. And it would be really interesting when I did donor meetings sometimes with board members, and I remember board members would be telling the stories of our legal aid clients in Chicago, for example, and they were getting it all wrong.
Rob Acton: You know, the truth is they’d heard the story, I’d told them the story at the board meeting, or they heard from the attorney and they were missing facts and they just weren’t nailing it. And I kept thinking to myself, it doesn’t matter at all, because it was a board member who had latched onto a story and it affected them and they were retelling it and they were missing a few of the facts. And that didn’t matter because they were communicating from such a place of passion and purpose. And that story had embodied for them why they were engaged in this work and why they thought somebody else should support it. So arming board members with those sort of mission moments, goosebump moments, client stories, impact stories, I think is critical. And then being okay with the delivery to not be perfect because it really, if it’s coming from the heart of a board member and you’ve armed them with that story, you should count that a success.
Farra Trompeter: Great. I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of board members as ambassadors. Many people talk about the need for board members to donate or help raise money, right? We talk a lot about “Give/Get“, and there’s a whole other school of thought related to whether or not we should require, “Give/Get“. And we’ll see if we have time for that or we can talk about that in a future conversation. If we think about the responsibilities of board members around fundraising, and people, again, have lots of feelings about that, but I want to talk about it for communications now. Kay Sprinkel Grace wrote a book a few years ago called “The Triple A Way to Fundraising Success” or literally “AAA”. And that book spoke about how board members need to be askers, ambassadors, and advocates. Those were the three A’s that she broke down in that book. And I’m just curious how you see those roles applying to marketing and communications for board members. Rob, you want to start us off on this one?
Rob Acton: Ambassadors? Absolutely. And that looks probably different for everybody. The board that I chair, Broadway Inspirational Voices, not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about Broadway Inspirational Voices in some form or fashion. And sometimes that’s in a very ambassador-like role. You know, I’m at a gala for another organization and I run into somebody and tell them, “Hey, you know, I chair this board and it’s a terrific organization” and I’m making a connection to their life. What I say to our board leaders when we’re working with the folks that we place on boards through BoardLead is view board service as becoming part of your personal and professional identity. And as you move through life, you’re not only a banker at JP Morgan Chase, you’re also a board member of Broadway Inspirational Voices, and both of those things are part of your professional and personal journey.
Rob Acton: And both of those things are terrific conversation pieces for the folks you meet and the folks in your life over dinner. When you meet up with your friends in the evening, make that part of your personal journey. I’ll also address the asking question. I do not think every board member should be an “Asker” in a fundraising sense at all. A lot of people aren’t good at it. A lot of people are terrified of it. You know, in the same way that a baseball team, when you’re looking at your nine positions on the field, you’re sending your best player to play, right fields, your best player to play shortstop, your best pitcher, and your best catcher, right? We’re being very thoughtful around who the best player is for that position to win the game. And I think it’s very similar in fundraising. There are going to be some board members who will thrive in that role.
Rob Acton: They can tell a great story, they can communicate from passion, they’re fearless, they’re happy to look somebody across the table and say, Farra, will you consider a $10,000 gift to support the campaign this year? And there are others who could never imagine themselves doing something like that with somebody they know or a stranger. That doesn’t mean they’re not engaged in fundraising, right? There’s a lot of other ways that you can engage in the fundraising effort separate and apart from making the hard ask. But I do think that we should be thoughtful around how we ask board members to engage in fundraising, meet them where they are, and generate their involvement based on their personality styles. Brian Saber has done some terrific work and written a book on four different asking styles that folks might want to check out, but not everyone is an “asker,” and I won’t give more of his content away. I’ll let you purchase his book to look into it.
Farra Trompeter: I just want to jump in before we go to get Erin’s take on this. I hear what you’re saying about asking for fundraising. I’m curious what you think about asking from a marketing and communications lens. I could be an “asker” and from a marketing and communications perspective, that might mean I’m asking people to attend an event. I’m asking people to sign on to an action or to learn more about the organization. So I want to build off the framework that comes from fundraising, but think about it from a marketing and communications lens. So with that lens, would you sort of shift any of your thinking?
Erin Pierson: We tend to think in a very broad way about what resources are for an organization. Rob spoke in a more detailed way about fundraising, but I do think that board members are also the primary drivers of new board members for organizations too, which is a huge resource. So that might be something that’s a little bit undersold, both in the onboarding process as well as a general board culture. Even if I’m not necessarily identifying that individual, how do I hold conversations with folks who are interested in joining, sell my personal connection to the organization, start to build that relationship, that sort of passion and love and connection to what we do and the impact that we create. So coaching folks in that direction can be super helpful and I think is a facet of playing those three roles. I also think that from a selling standpoint or a marketing standpoint, I think part of that is also just sort of being aware of potential partnerships and sort of understanding the value and then helping to think about the value proposition between those partnerships too. So whether it’s partnering with a business in the community or a local government organization, kind of board members thinking about like, okay, how do we sell our organization as a partner to others can be another facet of that as well.
Farra Trompeter: Great. And I want to dive deeper into, I think we can all agree seeing board members as ambassadors and champions of the organization is really helpful. And I’m curious if you have any tips or ideas for how nonprofit staff, whether they’re the executive director, CEO, or they’re in any role they are in, how they can help support and equip their board members to be ambassadors and champions. Rob, any thoughts coming to mind for you?
Rob Acton: Yeah, my starting point is always to remember that our board members are busy professionals with big lives. They have families, they have outside pursuits, they have travel, maybe they’re taking care of their aging parents, like think how busy people’s lives are. And so we have to make this sort of engagement easy for them. Just discreet asks and armed with the tools they need to get it done. So for example, to say to your board, “Hey, we’d love for you to champion our work on social media”. Expect very little championing of your work to be done on social media. But if you give them pre-written messages with the right number of character limits that can be cut and pasted onto their Twitter page, it’ll get done. Or give them a photo meme with messaging or data that really sort of amplifies the mission and ask, “Will you put this on your LinkedIn page this week?”, It’ll get done.
Rob Acton: Being really specific with those asks and arming them with the tools they need to do them quickly, I think is a great way to get your board engaged. But general requests not so much. What doesn’t work is to say, Hey, board members, and by the way, this is common. This is what usually happens, “Board members, our gala coming up, we need silent auction items. So please ask all your friends for donations to the silent auction this year.” Nobody’s doing anything. But if you ask me, “Hey Rob, doesn’t your friend have a vacation rental property in Palm Springs, and we want to put together a Palm Springs package? Do you think there’s any chance your friend might donate a long weekend to BIV this year of that home?” “Well, I’ll ask,” right? So now I have an idea generated for me and I’ve been asked to act on it much more likely than a broad brush request. So that’s sort of my starting point is remember how busy people are, general broad asks won’t work, specific asks armed with the tools needed to accomplish them will work.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. What do you think, Erin?
Erin Pierson: I’ll do a little bit of the flip side on that ’cause I think there is a moment as a board member where you can get a little bit bigger and kind of get a little bit more creative with helping someone identify what are those specific ways in which they can kind of show up in the boardroom and own their little space, whether that’s a skillset or a network or a community. As folks are onboarding and you’re having those great conversations with the CEO and the Chair about like, what am I bringing to the table? Actually, using that time to start to craft what is my plan as a board member for the first two years? What are the areas where I know I can be the captain and raise my hand specific to me that’s a little different from everyone else? And then using that as kind of like a framework or some bumpers, if you will, as you’re kind of thinking about where are the spots where I can think about where I’m showing up in the boardroom too so that I’m raising my hand before the ask is made sometimes.
Farra Trompeter: Great. So you’re talking about make it easy, make it specific and meet them where they are… kind of channel into their passion. Now these tips are great, especially when we’re asking board members to do things, but sometimes board members ask us to do things. I have been on boards, I’ve attended board meetings as a consultant where I’ve seen board members, in my opinion, overstretch their role. Rob, I remember reading a post that you had on LinkedIn called “A Nonprofit CEO’s Nightmare, the Micromanaging Board“. And for some boards, there can be a very fuzzy line between what is the responsibility of the staff and of the management, what is the role and the responsibility of the board. And I’m just curious, Rob, if any situations come to mind for you where you’ve seen these shades of gray between the board and the staff, and if you have any clarity that comes to mind for you about when is the board overstepping their line and how you think about that?
Rob Acton: Yeah. One of my passion topics, having served both on the nonprofit CEO side and the board side for many years. And it happens all the time, where during a board meeting, a topic is being discussed and somebody will say, “Hey, is this even the board’s decision anyhow?” Or someone will say, “Hey, why is the CEO moving forward on this? Doesn’t this fit within our purview?” And the truth is, it’s very gray much of the time. I wrote that blog because I think it’s such a challenge to sort through that gray area. How do you ascertain when an issue, a decision should properly rest with the board or should it more appropriately rest with autonomous management action by the executive director? And when it’s unclear, how do we decide who gets to decide? So in that blog, I tried to provide a little guidance, first check with the bylaws, not very often, but sometimes bylaws actually outline things that very clearly will belong to the board and things that won’t.
Rob Acton: I once worked at an organization that said, any contractual obligation or expenditure over $10,000 required board approval, great, it’s black and white. We know now that one will require board approval or it won’t. But that’s really the case in these gray situations. So I usually encourage the Board Chair and the Chief Executive to talk and sort of explore this area. A new nonprofit, CEO might say to their Board Chair, “Talk to me about the kinds of decisions you think the board should be involved in and the kinds of decisions that you would expect me to make and drive in my leadership day-to-day role.” And try to understand how the two leaders of that organization, the CEO and the Board Chair are thinking about it. But again, these are gray areas and situations are going to come up. So maybe the most helpful thing in the blog, and I’d love for people to visit it, I tried to proffer a few principles for Chief Executives to apply when deciding whether they should surface that issue with the board.
Rob Acton: There are things like permanence, the longer a decision’s implications will stay with the organization, the more likely it is that the board should be involved. So maybe if you’re thinking about a 20-year lease of a new office space, that lease will probably last longer than you will as the CEO. Sounds like it maybe should involve the board or the more that it’s directional in nature kind of related to the strategic direction of the organization, the more likely it is that the board should be involved. Instance, from my life, we were considering shutting down an intake location at a South Side neighborhood in Chicago. And that felt like it related to strategic direction. And so I thought, well, we need to get the board involved. The more controversial a decision is, the more likely the board should be involved. If a stakeholder group you know is going to react negatively to that decision, why as a CEO would you want to do it on your own?
Rob Acton: Right? Get the protection of a board-level decision in a controversial decision. One more I’ll mention is something that’s sort of going to put the imprimatur of the organization on a decision for the world to see. I know as a CEO I oftentimes was asked to join formal policy positions, sign a petition, sign a letter to the governor. I have my opinions about it, but if I’m putting the organization’s imprimatur on it, maybe the board should be engaged so it’s an organization-level decision. So just some sort of broad ideas to help guide that decision-making around when you engage your board and when you don’t. Last thing I would say is boards will engage when you put a topic in front of them. So as a CEO, you always want to be thoughtful around what you choose to put in front of that, and I learned this the hard way over a lot of years, but you start to realize like, wow, if they don’t know about it and it doesn’t really fit into one of these categories, that seems like a definite area where the board should be involved. Maybe they don’t need to be, but if you put it in front of them, don’t be surprised when they have strong opinions and want to make some decisions.
Farra Trompeter: Yes. If you don’t want an opinion, don’t ask for it. Well, we will be sure to link to, you know, you’ve mentioned some books, we’ve talked about, some blog posts. We will link to all of that on the transcript of this show at bigduck.com/insights. You can also head on over to Cause Strategy Partners website. They’ve got lots of great content like the blog Rob just mentioned. You can learn more about their awesome programs like BoardLead. They’re at causestrategypartners.com. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And I’m curious, Erin, if there’s any other way that you would say folks out there listening can get involved with you all and what you have to offer.
Erin Pierson: Sure. So for nonprofit leaders and board members who are interested in growing their boards, Cause Strategy Partners offers a free program called BoardLead, which helps to connect corporate leaders to nonprofit boards. It’s entirely free. We’re launching our next round as of I believe, September 1st, 2023. So if you’re interested to learn more, visit our website, causestrategypartners.com, contact us via the contact form, and we’ll make sure that you’re in the fold to learn more about how you can find your next board member. Great.
Farra Trompeter: And I know your website, again, has lots of great blogs, podcasts, ways to learn more, so definitely head on over, sign up for their newsletter, get involved. Well, before we sign off, Rob, Erin, any last thoughts you want to share with our listeners?
Rob Acton: Well, I just love the work that you do, Farra, it’s so important for nonprofits in the nonprofit sector. I will say this has been an arc for me when I was a new executive director of a legal aid organization in Chicago, every extra dollar, I wanted to hire another attorney to serve more clients. And that was just sort of my instinct, like why would I spend money on marketing and communications? We need to serve more clients. I’ve come a long way on that perspective because what I’ve come to realize over time is that the outside world will receive the messages of our organization based on how we look and how we sound and how we appear. And if our look and feel is amateurish, why would they trust our attorneys with their housing crisis, their family crisis, their criminal charge, right? That we want to reflect the quality of services that we deliver. So I understand very deeply the constant pressure around expenses and revenue and how we need to invest our monies. But whether through dedicated staff, pro bono, skills-based volunteerism, paid consultants, marketing and communications has to be on our priority list as a leader. It’s just mission-critical to amplifying the work that we do and making sure that we’re appearing in the outside world with the same quality that we deliver.
Farra Trompeter: Well, I just want to jump in and say thank you because we’re often saying we see marketing and communications often seen and treated as kind of a luxury item, and we think it is a must and not a maybe. So thank you for going on that journey and I hope others go on a similar one as well.
Rob Acton: And I can attest that you did not set me up for that Farra.
Farra Trompeter: I did not. I’m surprised to hear you say it. I love hearing it. How about you, Erin? Any last thoughts?
Erin Pierson: Well, it’s music to my ears to hear my CEO say that about marketing and communications as I work on that. But having worked in marketing and communications on the nonprofit side and now for social enterprise, I look at marketing and communications as an investment in future growth. It’s R & D for your organization. It’s critical. It’s not just a nice to have. And I think if you’re not consistently telling your story and leveraging every single resource to do that, you can’t drive your mission forward.
Farra Trompeter: Great. Well, Erin and Rob, thank you so much for being here and everyone out there enjoy the rest of your day.
Rob Acton: Thank you, Farra.
Erin Pierson: Thanks Farra.