“An environmental scan is the first step I recommend,” said consultant Steve Farbstein. “Let’s get a group of your stakeholders together and we can talk through our plan for the day long board retreat.”
Steve is the nonprofit sector’s new consultant. Highly skilled, mission motivated, organizationally aware, and best yet, pro-bono.
Steve, in this case, is a member of the March of Dimes National Volunteer Leadership Council. The Council is made up of expert volunteer leaders, a diverse group of men and women, who have made their way through the March of Dimes ranks. These leaders have done their time as committee members; event chairs; committee chairs and even as Chairs of local market boards.
They are the organization’s brain trust. They have institutional memory all the while having a vision for our future. They are the lead consulting agency for the organization, albeit without the hefty price tag. These individuals are empowered to drive our business using a peer to peer, volunteer to volunteer approach. They are trained at the National level, but have the practical experience of local leaders.
In the March of Dimes model, the Council has a primary focus of providing consultation services on the subjects of recruitment, retention and engagement of volunteer leaders. Council members are experts on the topic of building boards. Every market needs to have an effective board and many are challenged at building one. These volunteer Council members are an invaluable resource to their volunteer peers around the country.
Most recently, these volunteer consultants took an “invest in your best” approach, traveling to support local volunteers in key markets including Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Houston to help strengthen their board development approach. They met with the local market board chair and local staff to plot out a strategy to take these high potential boards to the next level.
It’s not a one-off engagement, rather it becomes a partnership. Think of it as a retainer-based model, paid for in good will. The construct allows the local market chair and local staff member to have ongoing access to the volunteer consultant. The consultant learns the market, learns the opportunities and challenges and becomes a fixture in the lives of the local team, lending their knowledge of his or her own market and others around the country. Small fees may apply associated with travel. But even for those nonprofits on a shoestring budget, the consultation engagement can take place by phone or video chat.
In following standard volunteer development tenets, it is a proverbial win / win for the organization. These volunteer consultants are satisfying their own volunteer motivations while serving and benefitting others. Every organization has these leaders. And every organization can deploy them.
Why does the model work?
- These volunteer consultants have seen and experienced the “best practice” model. They were selected for service on this Council because of their success in their own market. They are able to “talk the talk” having previously “walked the walk” when they served in that lead local role.
- They understand the organization – its strengths, its weaknesses and its political realities. This form of volunteer consultant knows what is feasible and what is fantasy. In his 25 year association with the March of Dimes, Council member Frank Wall of Oregon has traveled the country for years as a March of Dimes volunteer consultant. When Frank cautions a group of board leaders on the pitfalls of one strategy over another, they tend to listen.
- The model brings corporate pragmatism to the nonprofit board room door. These outside volunteers are corporate leaders during their day job. In this model, they truly are regarded as consultant experts, bringing new vision and enthusiasm to an existing board. My former colleague liked to quote the adage, “You can’t be a prophet in your own land.” But you can be a prophet at someone else’s board meeting.
- The deployment of these volunteer leaders supports local staff who sometimes have to navigate challenging situations with their local board leaders. From a pure communications vantage point, inserting a volunteer to handle a volunteer challenge is much more effective than interjecting a well intentioned staff member. Ask Council Member Sandy Lish, who runs her own corporate communications firm in her day job. (We often forget that these volunteers actually have one!)
- These volunteer consultants are expanding their own reach. It provides them with an opportunity to impact a market well out of their own geographic range. They can prove out their own model by testing it in other areas across the country. The added bonus is the opportunity for this volunteer consultant to network with leaders in another geography.
We have already seen the fruits of this effort, with the aforementioned local boards noting an increase in board engagement, new recruits, and an expanded understanding of the best ways to leverage relationships for purposes of mission implementation and revenue production.
Next, their focus will turn to the key initiatives associated with Prematurity Awareness Month this November. Our Pledge Purple for Preemies online campaign will ask individuals to commit to take action during November to help us raise awareness and fight premature birth, the #1 killer of babies. Fundraisers, prematurity summits and purple lightings across the country will help spread the word and the March of Dimes efforts to find the unknown causes of premature birth and prevent babies born too soon. Visit www.marchofdimes.org.
The consulting world has employed this model for years. It’s time to apply it to the nonprofit sector with a slight twist. Identify your best leaders, connect them to one another, stay out of their way, and let them work their magic.
Lauren is the VP of Volunteer Leadership Development at the March of Dimes. In this capacity she oversees the team that develops and implements strategies to enhance the attraction, recruitment and retention of volunteers and board leaders in key markets across the country. Efforts also include engaging national service partners, youth leaders, the military, and a focus on volunteer diversity.