November 21, 2017
 
Energize Your Networks

By Steve Smith

Steve Smith
With financial resources nearly always scarce, nonprofit organizations should utilize their other precious asset—their networks—to strengthen their ability to deliver on their mission.

Networking is the art of identifying, cultivating, and engaging friends of your organization. These friendships ultimately may yield monetary support, sources of non-financial support, and ambassadors who can, in turn, cultivate more friends.

It's also ongoing – which is why you should constantly identify potential friends, hone your messaging, and plan how to best deliver those messages. And it begins with getting your staff, board of directors, and other volunteers on the same team to build your capacity to thrive.

The best place to start is a meeting of the board of directors, who must constantly stay mindful of their critical role as emissaries for the organization to which they have committed. They know the mission, they know the goals, they know the good that the organization brings to the community. How do they share this value? How do they share the good news with people they work with, play with, pray with?

Start with a conversation. Take some time at a staff meeting and the next board meeting to talk about reaching out to friends to share your mission. There may be members who are doing this now. Identify them before the next meeting. Ask them to share their techniques with the group. Use their experiences to kick off the discussion. Listen for the ideas that have been most successful. Share a summary of the results with all who can benefit from these experiences.

Continue the conversation. Be sure to put the discussion on the agenda for subsequent meetings. Find out in advance who is trying the new techniques. Ask one or two of the new practitioners to report on what they’re doing.

Engage communications experts to share advice. Do you have a director of communications on your staff? If not, does one of your board members or volunteers have communication expertise? Strategize with this person about your approach to engaging networks. Incorporate messages that are consistent with your brand so your staff and volunteers are talking about your work in a unified and consistent way.

Twitter? Facebook? Blogs? Is someone on your team familiar with social media and willing to show others how to effectively use these tools? It’s likely that this person will be younger than most of the team. If so, this is an excellent opportunity to let an up-and-comer show their stuff. An effective plan for social media can engage people you otherwise might miss who will support your mission once they learn what the organization is about.

What’s your story? Nonprofit organizations have numerous stories about your clients’ great experience with your services. Incorporate telling of stories as part of “conversation time.” A program staff person or a volunteer probably has more than one such story to share. Let your group hear a story or two each time you meet, and encourage your board, staff, and volunteers to retell these stories when they are out engaging their networks.

Begin at the beginning. Gary Stern, a marketing expert based in Portland, Maine, encourages nonprofits to be sure that their mission and clients are in the forefront of their thinking, planning, and doing. “Begin at the beginning” is his first admonition in his pamphlet Ten Things Every Board Member Should Know. In your networking, you want your conversation and stories to be about the people you serve. That way, potential supporters and volunteers will be more eager to join your cause when they realize that it’s more about the people you serve than it is about your organization.

There is a reservoir of good will out there, ready to hear about the good you do. And every day, your volunteers and staff talk with many people who will want to help bring the “good” you deliver to more people. Your organization’s job is to forge the link through staff, board, and volunteer networks so you can grow the circle of friends and supporters.

When you take the time to apply creative approaches to communication through networks, you engage and energize people for your mission. It takes commitment and work, but it will put your organization in the strongest possible position to thrive in the future.

Steve Smith is principal at It’s The Results, a company providing board development, strategic planning, and fundraising consultation to the nonprofit community. Contact him at s.p.99smith@gmail.com.

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