Board Power! One Conversation at a Time

November 16, 2009

Wendy Liscow, Program Officer

I have been attending the introductory workshops of the Dodge Foundation’s Board Leadership Series over the past several weeks, taking copious notes and itching to share tidbits of wisdom I am learning.  It would be impossible to capture everything covered in the six-hour workshops or to adequately describe the discoveries and paradigm shifts in thinking that can only come from participation.  Still, I am committed to sharing some of the basic “aha” moments.

Laura Otten, the Executive Director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business starts her Board Bootcamp workshop with a sobering statistic:  there are 43,697 nonprofit organizations in New Jersey.  At this point a hush descends over the group as they pause to take in the fact: “My organization is competing with 43,697 other nonprofits for funding, board members, clientele, and to have our message heard.”   That explains the reality nonprofits feel everyday and the constant push to find unique and effective ways to distinguish themselves amongst the crowd. The Board Leadership series is designed to help strengthen your greatest untapped asset in accomplishing this: your Board.

Laura Otten (and the Board training series) identifies a continuum of ways a Board can help differentiate the nonprofit organization it governs.  She began with the most basic thing that every single board member can do in their role as ambassador: she wants board members to go beyond the “elevator speech” and develop the “sideline speech.”  This is the speech board members need to have ready for parties, galas, and business functions or when they are on the sidelines of a soccer or football game and someone asks the inevitable question: “So what do you do?”

Ask yourself, “What percentage of your board answers that question with their employment history and then adds:  ‘AND I am a proud board member of a wonderful organization that does X, Y and Z and is important because of A, B and C.’?”   If you answered anything less than 100%, Laura contends, you are wasting a major asset.

But getting your board to talk about your organization is only half of the equation.  They also all need to be providing a consistent message.  Certainly each board member should and will have their personalized story of why they care about your organization, but at the end of the day, they all need to be telling the whole story of what makes your organization unique.

Board Presidents and Executive Directors: hear this clarion call and be sure that 100% of your board members are out in the world serving as your ambassador and have been given the proper tools to do it well.  It is a perfect use of board meeting time to work on this task, and it will not only yield a more engaged community, but a more invigorated and engaged board.

Also, consider attending one of the Dodge Foundation board leadership workshops that focus on other areas of governance:  Board Recruitment; Strategic Planning; Financial Management; Executive Director and Board relationship; Fundraising; and Succession Planning.  Then you will be the one bringing the learning back to your board  and colleagues.

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