Using communications to engage your board
Boards have been around for centuries in America and today they take many different forms in the nonprofit sector. The intent is for a group of volunteers to help direct or “steer the organization towards a sustainable future.” But ask a room of nonprofit staff how they feel about their board, or a group of board members how they feel about their service, and you are likely to hear stories of frustration and disappointment from both sides. This dissatisfaction comes from lots of places–overstepping or underperforming, asking for too much or too little, lacking connection to the mission, or tokenizing community representation.
How do you communicate and engage board members before they join, while they are actively on your board, and after they term off? I’ve had a variety of personal experiences as a board member, board chair, board trainer, and board presenter. With these experiences and our focus on communications, here are some insights to help try to get things right when it comes to your board and communications.
Start with recruitment.
A good recruitment process is about finding passionate people who believe in your nonprofit’s mission and have the skills you need. Strong communication before, during, and after board recruitment can help board members engage with your work and help you achieve your goals.
Before someone joins your board, make sure they have a clear understanding of what your organization stands for, what it does, and how strong its operations and financials are. Whether you meet with potential board members in person, exchange information by email, or share content on your website, be sure to detail the responsibilities of board service and your expectations for the role they’d play in helping you achieve your mission (one framework you might consider, Triple A, is below). Beyond what you send to board members, know they might also do their own research. What will they experience when they review your social channels or show up at your events? Is your brand strategy clear? Will they get the right impression and understand what you are about?
Once someone is recruited and joins the board, it helps to provide some sort of onboarding, which might include an orientation session or welcome packet. These materials should include:
- Organizational background documents (bylaws, strategic plan, theory of change, recent 990s and audits, annual report, etc.)
- Overview of the board (roles and responsibilities, committee structure, recent meeting minutes, etc.).
- Overview of the team (organizational chart, best ways to communicate (or not) with staff, etc.)
- Communications assets (brand guide, messaging, communications plan, etc.).
Use meetings and ongoing communications to inform board members.
Beyond onboarding, keep the work of the organization alive during board meetings. Add those “mission moments” so board members can gain different insights into your programs and have fresh stories to share with their network. These moments can come from staff presentations or even board members themselves, sharing why they are proud to be on the board or what they learned after a recent program visit, if appropriate.
Regularly, at least annually, you want to do a brand refresh session at one of your board meetings. Train the board on what your brand is about–its goals, audience priorities, and desired perception–as well as the tools they’ll need to be effective ambassadors, which include your elevator pitch or talking points. All board members should be able to speak about your mission, why you are needed, what impact you have, and how others can participate in your programs.
Finally, once it is time for a board member to cycle off you will want to keep them engaged as board alumni. Make sure they are on your list and tagged in your database or systems so you can continue to reach out to them with updates, event invitations, impact reports, and other requests for support. Board alumni can continue to represent you, make connections on your behalf, and invest their time, skills, and resources to help you advance your mission.
Set your board up to be ambassadors.
Wondering what to ask your board to do for you or what you can do for your board? One approach to consider is the Triple A Model or Ambassadors, Advocates, and Askers (AAA), developed by Kay Sprinkel Grace. I’ve seen organizations ask board members to select at least one category to focus their participation, though I recommend finding ways board members can be all three.
Ambassadors are positive spokespeople for the organization and its mission. They identify and cultivate prospective donors, steward existing donors and funders, and represent the organization at meetings, conferences, and events. Ambassadors understand the organization’s mission, are coached in messaging to effectively communicate impact, and can recite an overview of who you are. They also share news, events, and announcements on social media, email, text, meetings, or other channels based on where they spend their time.
Advocates take an active role in learning about the organization and can articulate its benefits to the community. They ask community members for feedback and share that information with staff and other board members. Advocates may officially represent you with foundation officers, sponsors, policymakers, or partners, as well as informally with colleagues, volunteers, and friends. They should have a deep understanding of the organization’s strategic plan and vision, so they can make a strong case for why others should work with the organization.
Askers are happy to share their passion for your organization and ask others to invest in your work. Askers are well-informed and well-trained on the case for supporting the organization. They may join staff members on funder visits, participate in fundraising campaigns, and engage colleagues or partners in supporting the organization by attending events, volunteering, donating, or other forms of participation.
Engage your board in your brand and strategic communications processes.
When you are developing your organization’s brand or creating your annual communications plan, there are a range of ways you might engage the board.
- Create a communications committee to help provide input or manage key projects, depending on your staff capacity. Some organizations have a focused communications committee, others combine it with a development committee.
- Establish a working group of board and staff members when you take on major projects, like a rebrand. While the working group may only have one or two board members on it, these folks can offer their expertise, engage in the project deeply and represent the work in full board meetings.
- Conduct individual or group interviews with board members when you are going through significant communications projects to get their perspectives and motivations and learn from their experiences.
- Host regular workshops to provide board members with opportunities to learn, share ideas, and collaborate on branding or campaign efforts. Encourage board members to define their role in helping use your communications to connect with the community.
- Offer ongoing training opportunities to build the board’s knowledge and skills. This may include workshops on delivering the message, setting up a fundraising campaign, recruiting volunteers, or building partnerships.
Having strong communications throughout the recruitment process, keeping board members informed, leveraging the Triple A Model, and thoughtfully engaging your board across your branding and communications projects can result in board members playing a more helpful role in your communications so you can reach your goals.