Nonprofit boards–PR vital, pay optional

MiBiz reported recently that the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives (NANOE) advocates that members of nonprofit organization boards should be compensated financially and also provide more oversight to the organizations on whose boards they serve.

The MiBiz article notes that nonprofit executives in Michigan “bristle” at the notion, and with good reason. For one, pay should be optional. Of the thousands of nonprofit organizations in existence, many can not afford to pay more than an executive director or much staff, let alone board members. Also, many board members work for love of the cause or a desire to engage in some community service. The fact that they work pro bono does not mean they do not take seriously their oversight role.

But what struck me even more is that NANOE suggests there should be four specific nonprofit board roles: an “enterprise development” specialist, a mission specialist, a CPA and a lawyer. I think this roster makes sense but falls short.

My own research, published as a chapter in the book “Public Relations in the Nonprofit Sector: Theory and Practice,” is an investigation of nonprofit boards and their public relations capacity, or lack thereof. Based on an investigation of executives of Michigan nonprofit organization, the results are mixed.

While a majority (76%) said that communications with stakeholders was a role and capacity sought in board members, only 11% indicated it was the most important board member ability. Other capacities included knowledge of the organization’s cause or mission and fundraising ability. While 52% said they had at least one board member with PR education or experience, this may be due to the fact that 75% define public relations as “getting the word out.”

The good news is that PR and communications ranked high–after some of these other functions–as an important knowledge or skill set for board members to have. But there is work to be done in building understanding in the nonprofit community of what PR is in the first place–including relationship building, branding, reputation management, and strategies both internal and external.

It’s interesting to read NANOE’s idea for nonprofit boards, but it’s short-sighted to impose it on all organizations as a one-size fits all strategy. It flies in the face of tailored strategy and organizational individuality. It also runs the risk of damaging hard-won reputation and community relations. Ironically, a board member with some PR savvy would be able to offer this counsel.

Why Are There Not More PR Pros on Nonprofit Boards?

I have often noticed and admired PR professionals who serve on the boards of area nonprofits. This has, as we PR people would say, a “mutual benefit.” PR pros do this as a part of their PR role of community relations. If in an agency, it’s a form of new business development because of the networking with other board members. The organization also benefits from PR counsel at the board and executive level.
But I have also noticed that a lot of nonprofit organizations do not have PR professionals on their boards. So I did what academics do: I launched a study on the subject.
The results of my study is now a chapter in a recently published book:  Routledge Research in Public Relations: Public Relations in the Nonprofit Sector. My chapter, “PR Capacity on Nonprofit Boards,” gives insight on the value of having PR professionals serve on nonprofit boards.
Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 12.11.16 PMI worked with the assistance of the Johnson Center on Philanthropy to put together a list of the executives of the nonprofits in Michigan with more than 1 staff member. Of the 704 on the list, 215 responded.  Their answers to a survey reveal that executives of nonprofit organizations do not view having a PR professional serve on a nonprofit board as a priority, but rather as “nice to have.” 
Most executives in the study claimed that they did not seek out board members with a public relations background. Additionally, nonprofit executives do not have an accurate understanding of public relations as a whole.
Specifically, while a majority (76%) said that communications with stakeholders was a role and capacity sought in board members, only 11% indicated it was the most important board member ability. While 52% said they had at least one board member with PR education or experience, this may be due to the fact that 75% define public relations as “getting the word out.”
Clearly, there is a need for more PR professionals to serve nonprofit organizations at the executive and management level. Part of that service would be to educate nonprofit management about the full role and benefit of public relations as a sophisticated effort in relationship building, with multiple publics.
A summary of the result is found below: