Creating an effective, fluent corps of board ambassadors

by Roger Sametz for massnonprofit news

Nonprofit boards are often an underutilized resource. But with tools and training—and confidence—they can effectively tell your story, build your brand, and bolster fundraising efforts.

Fundraising is a relationship business, and most nonprofits don’t have the people or resources needed to seek out and meet enough new qualified prospects—and subsequently move them closer to the organization. But all nonprofits have boards. If board members, who already have an expressed commitment to advance an organization, can feel fluent and comfortable telling your story—and have some tools to back them up––then your advancement efforts (and results) can be significantly magnified.

But board members are often not natural ambassadors. Even though they give their time and dollars because they truly believe in your organization, when asked to be apostles—to increase interest, open doors, and generate support—eyes tend to look down onto the boardroom table or up to the clock.

Why? In our experience, board members are uncomfortable spreading the word (and more uncomfortable beginning a chat the ultimate desired result of which is a contribution) because—

  • they don’t feel they have an “elevator speech”;
  • they can talk about parts of the organization, but are fuzzy on other aspects;
  • they may know “what” you do (mostly), but are less clear on “why”;
  • they’re hard-pressed to prove your value and impact;
  • they know why they support you, but might be hard-pressed to identify other reasons to support;
  • if they encounter resistance, or run up against misperceptions, they feel ill-equipped to counter; and
  • they just haven’t done it before.

In a workshop setting, develop a shared understanding of what your constituents care about, your roles and areas of focus, and attributes you’d like associated with your organization.

But board members are often not natural ambassadors. Even though they give their time and dollars because they truly believe in your organization, when asked to be apostles—to increase interest, open doors, and generate support—eyes tend to look down onto the boardroom table or up to the clock.

You can turn this discomfort around Dedicate 90 minutes of a board meeting—or allocate even more time in a special session—and, with a facilitator, collaboratively iterate and clarify:

  • Your constituents: What do they care about, and what do you want them to think, feel, and do?
  • Your essence: What are you about in the fewest number of words? “The most relevant, accessible symphony orchestra,” or “A fresh approach to ending hunger.”
  • Your vision: Why do you exist? How will the world (or a small part of it) look different if you’re successful? (This may already be laid out in your mission and vision statements, but if not, no wonder board members are fuzzy.) Try to boil this down: “People who need jobs will be connected to where the jobs are––through innovative transit initiatives.” “The downward spiral of hunger and poverty will be broken through creative solutions that meet hungry people where they are––at work, in clinics, at school, and at play.”
  • Your areas of focus: In broad strokes, what are the programmatic areas you’re engaged in? For example, if your mission is to eradicate hunger in your state, are you about emergency food? Building self-sufficiency? Prevention? If you have a wide range of programs, group them into 3-5 areas; no one can remember 17.
  • Your roles: What to you do? Are you an inventor or steward of a tradition? Are you a convener, educator, advocate, catalyst? Connecting your areas of focus and roles will go a long way toward building your high-level story.
  • Brand attributes: What adjectives and qualities do you want constituents to associate with your organization? These provide color and tone for messages and conversations. If you’re “welcoming and accessible” then your elevator speech and its delivery need to be that. If you’re “hip and edgy” that gives another direction. If you’re “risk-taking and visionary,” then there are different cues, again.
  • “Ways in”: What are the different reasons a prospect might support you? Donors, especially significant ones, are looking to “invest” in organizations that will advance their passions and interests. Another example: a prospective donor to an orchestra might care about keeping centuries of music alive; another might care about commissioning new music; others might care about education and community programs, the social aspects of the organization, or the performance space. Identify these different resonant ways in for your organization. Meet donors where they are.

Get all this input up on big sheets of paper around the room. Then use what you’ve generated to fill in the template, below (go for more ideas, not fewer at this point). Then ask each board member to draw upon these ideas and draft his or her version of the template. Read these aloud to the group and have each person note the words and phrases that particularly resonate with them: “I wish I’d said that.” Through this exercise you will have developed a message your board members feel comfortable sharing.

With nothing fancier than a template, big post-it pads, and some markers, you can generate a shared high-level message


For______________(x constituency),
______________(your organization) is a______________(distilled noun phrase).
By______________(roles), And through our work in______________(areas of focus),
We deliver______________ (the “why”…benefits). If you care about______________(possible “ways in”),
There is no better organization to invest in, If you share our commitment to ______________(your vision).

Getting your board familiar with all of the above will go a long way towards building fluency. But one flight of exercises shouldn’t be the end. Schedule a refresher session each year––either in the normal course of meetings or at a retreat–and come up with new exercises where board members have to both evolve and use what they know to advance the organization. It might just be the board meeting members most look forward to.