I run a nonprofit and it’s difficult to briefly explain what we do. In my early days here I took the advice of the big brains of the nonprofit world and worked with our board to develop an elevator speech that they can deliver at a moment’s notice when encountering the public. “Elevator speech” is an odd turn-of-phrase in rural America – we don’t have tall building elevators – we chat at grain elevators, grocery stores, kids’ games, and 10 o’clock coffee in the diner on Main Street.
Partner that with a few years ago when I noticed that our society had drifted from “How are you?” to “What’s new?” So based on that, I tried an experiment:
At that month’s Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours, the first person who greeted me with “What’s new?” got “Hoarding!” in response.
“Hoarding. This morning our Board of Trustees approved a grant to the County Health Department to start a Hoarding Task Force.”
“Wow…my aunt’s a hoarder! What’s this Task Force going to do?” And so on.
Soon I had 20 Chamber friends gathered around me all chatting fast and loud about hoarding. The best part about the Hoarding Task Force grant announcement? “Oh, wow…we SO need that in our community!”
Since then, I have added a Word-of-the-Month to our board agendas. Sometimes it’s a word; sometimes it’s a phrase. The point is to give the board something super short and sweet that they can use when they are out and about. They are given the assignment to bring up the word when with their friends, encouraging them to (gasp!) broach the topic of the fact that they serve on our board!
The real goal is to give them a word or phrase that will spur the conversation and give them the opportunity to hear the responses…kinda like reconnaissance in a way. Did their friends understand it? Did it make them happy or angry? Do the friends have experience with that issue in our county? Was this issue a good or bad move on our nonprofit’s part?
Data tidbits are helpful, too:
“Do you know that our food pantry use has gone up 4% in the last six months?”
“Do you know that our Drug Court graduated 72% of our participants last year?”
“I donated $200 so that one of our clients could get her car repaired so that she could go to work… otherwise she’d have just gone into a downward spiral and it would have cost way more than $200 to fix all of that.”
Then, to bring it full circle, put 10 minutes in the agenda next month to ask the results. At first our board was hesitant to a) use the word and b) talk about reactions, but soon they realized the joy they got in having conversations about our organization that didn’t involve asking for money!
Our job as nonprofit executives is to equip our boards with tools and skills for being our ambassadors out and about in the community. Their job is much wider than governance and fundraising. A Word-of-the-Month is one tool that you can train them to use in order to get them engaged outside of the board room, raise their level of comfort in talking with friends about your nonprofit, and raise overall awareness of your organization.