Best-Kept Secrets

Here’s the scene: A nonprofit board is discussing how to attract new supporters.

One board member, in an exasperated but sincere tone, says, “But it’s so hard to interest people… because, well, no one knows about us.” And then the board member adds these cringe-inducing words: “We’re the area’s best-kept secret. You have to do something to change that!”

Let’s analyze this line of argument.

First, know that every nonprofit this side of the Metropolitan Opera is a well-kept secret to one degree or another. None is a household word the way that Coca Cola is. None ever will be. That’s a statement of fact. Board members need to understand that relative anonymity is a way of life for smaller nonprofits.

Second, notice the use of pronouns. When board members slip from saying “we” into using “you,” as in, “You have to do something to change that,” they’re abdicating responsibility and tossing it back to the staff. And the subsequent conversation, if other board members join in, will lead to a laundry list of projects for staff members to undertake in order to make the place better known. You need to write more press releases, the board members will say. You should hold special events “to get the name out there.” This, they imply, is the way to become better known, and that in turn will attract new donors.

People don’t like conflict, and so they rarely say what they’re really thinking. That’s as true at the board table as anywhere. Sweeping things under the rug may not be the bravest or the most productive course of action, but it’s certainly the easiest. Board members are distracted by their regular jobs. They often come into the board meeting at the end of a harrowing day, perhaps feeling guilty about not doing things they’d promised at the last meeting. They sometimes haven’t read the meeting materials. They’re trying their best – but sometimes their best isn’t particularly great.

On the other hand, you have the staff members, deeply invested in the organization and the outcome of the meeting, feeling overworked and underpaid, overlooked and underappreciated. The staff need to be polite, but they struggle to suppress a growing sense of frustration – or, occasionally, a sense of self-righteousness. They don’t like being told how to do their business. They are skeptical about writing more press releases, because they don’t have the time and they don’t think most people read newspapers anymore. They know that special events can be an enormous time sink and may not result in either significant money or increased awareness. And they are thinking that one more thing on their to-do list, valid or not, is one thing too many.

What the staff members want to say, and what I as a consultant am paid to say, is: It’s really up to you as a board member to change the dynamic of the organization’s anonymity. You need to embrace your role as an ambassador. You need to tell people at parties what a great organization it is. You need to tell colleagues at your office that you’re proud to serve on the board. You need to throw a house party for the agency that engages potentially helpful friends.

You should tell friends and family to make gifts to the organization in lieu of a holiday or birthday present. Add your friends and colleagues to the organization’s mailing list – and send them a note saying why you’re doing it. Make it clear to your friends that you expect them to be supportive. Tell them to join you as donors.

If you as a board member want the organization to be better known, then do something about it. You don’t need a P.R. campaign as a precondition for connecting with people. Remember that your organization really doesn’t have to become a household word, except in certain strategic households. It’s your job to help figure out what households those are — and to make the necessary introductions.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • But, being a household word is really useful when that word is used in the right households. Thanks for the great post, Alan!

  • How true is this? I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times over the years when a trustee or advisory board member has said we need more PR and follows it up with ” you should do…” I finally have started to say, don’t you mean WE should… and I’ve started handing out the Triple A board member job description which talks about board members being Advocates- Ambassadors and Askers as part of their board orientation. I’ve sent this week’s blog to all our regional advisory board chairs and the chair of our trustees to remind everyone that we are all in the same boat and need to row together to reach the goal. xoxo


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