The silo effect is something we have all probably felt within our organizations, but we can also feel it within the communities we work in. Joining a nonprofit board is a strategic and beneficial way to bridge that gap and improve connectivity.
A common criticism of government is a lack of connection with the communities they serve. “Out of touch” is a phrase heard often and a moniker no agency wants to live with. Serving on a nonprofit board creates the opportunity for compassionate learning and relationship building. It can allow government employees to witness the realities their constituents are facing while getting to know the community leaders behind the solutions. This type of empathetic education can lead to improved programming and more targeted communications, not to mention the potential reduced risk of discriminatory practices against vulnerable populations.
A nonprofit connection also opens up avenues that may traditionally be closed off to government agencies. It may not be appropriate for a government communicator to discuss some issues in a matter-of-fact way, namely those that are mired in controversy (i.e. climate change, LGBT rights) but non-profits have much more freedom and less risk to discuss these issues openly which can strategically align your agency on the right side of an issue.
Besides increasing program efficiency and creating new communications avenues, encouraging and supporting employees to serve on nonprofit boards can effectively lift the reputation of the entire agency as well. That type of community visibility strengthens brand reputation and stakeholder engagement, and can serve as valuable fodder for various communications platforms. It’s not self-serving to highlight employees’ community engagement activities – it’s that type of positive storytelling that government needs more of.
For those in Human Resources or Talent Management, creating support systems for employees interested in serving the community outside of their job is an ideal professional development tool. With minimal loss to the government agency (the only cost being time), nonprofit engagement is another entry point for staff leadership development. For agencies leaning towards a more “customer-focused” style of government, a board role can also expose employees to direct relationships with donors, volunteers and clients. That type of interpersonal, customer-service interaction may not be something a technical expert can experience in their daily job, but it’s something they can develop while serving on a nonprofit board. The reverse also applies: serving on a board can offer opportunities in technical skills – budget management, performance reviews, strategic planning, program evaluation, etc. – that may not be a facet of an employee’s daily job.
For those interested in seeking out these opportunities, here is some advice to keep in mind while choosing your charity of choice:
- Check finances – Use online tools like GuideStar and Charity Navigator to view the organization’s financial history. Request to see the nonprofit’s annual report to determine what percentage of revenue was spent on programs and service versus administrative costs and salaries.
- Avoid conflicts of interest – Talk with your supervisor and HR department about any potential conflicts of interest. Does your agency facilitate grant funding? Be proactive about any resources a charity may request of you and the agency you represent.
- Align yourself with credible sources – What is the reputation of the organization’s leadership and current board members? Have they been involved in any questionable activities in their professional or personal lives? What other affiliations do they have? Once you join a board, you may be subject to the same risks and consequences of your fellow board members and the organization’s staff. Take Bernie Madoff for example and the nonprofits that unknowingly invested in his multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. The Jewish women’s charity, Hadassah, was ordered to pay millions of dollars of restitution to investors who lost money due to Madoff.
If we begin to think of our community activities as extensions of our professional lives rather than our separate selves, the two will only strengthen one another.
Kim Schoetzow is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.