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Converting Board “Strong-Armers” to Ambassadors

Rather than having board members rush to the “Ask,” soliciting their friends and business associates following the traditional strong-arming approach of the past, what if your board members and volunteers used that same trusted relationship to invite their friends and colleagues to your organization’s engaging and compelling one-hour Point of Entry Events and let the guests decide for themselves if your work mattered enough to them to get involved?

That is precisely what happened during the two years I worked as the first development director at an urban academy in Seattle, where I began to develop the Benevon Model.

Our board members all truly loved the school and had joined the board because they really cared. They had each already spent time at the school and had listened to and responded to the powerful vision of the school’s founders.

So once we created and began to hold our introductory tours, now called Point of Entry Events, on a regular basis, the board members happily volunteered to invite their friends to their private Points of Entry, often taking their friends to breakfast or lunch afterwards.

I remember the first time one of their guests, Martin, fell in love with the school. As he was leaving his first Point of Entry Event, Martin turned and said to me, “This was amazing! How do I get on the board here?” When I called our board chair, John, to tell him what Martin had said, he was stunned. “He actually said that? Do you know how great that makes me feel? To think that someone of Martin’s caliber fell in love with the school in his own right and could carry on the leadership of our board—that is remarkable!” Martin, like many others after him, joined the board and provided strong leadership for many years.

Compare that outcome to the old approach. One of our board members could have taken Martin out for lunch and asked him to write a check to this great inner-city school. Martin would have obliged dutifully. End of story. Or perhaps a board member and his wife could have invited Martin and his wife to join them at an annual gala or golf tournament, where there would be even less of a connection with the school’s mission.

Instead, we cultivated the relationship with Martin after the Point of Entry Event. I made a Five-Step Follow-Up Call three days later and asked him what he thought of the school and the tour. How else might he like to become involved? Was there anyone he might like to invite to attend a tour?

The result was that Martin became what we now call an Ambassador, inviting first his family and then his business associates to private Points of Entry he hosted at  the school. As we followed up with his friends and family, many of them got involved with the school, and Martin became more involved as well. He was a Table Captain at our first Free One-Hour Ask Event about nine months later; seven of his nine guests had already attended Point of Entry Events. Three of them joined our Multiple-Year Giving Society, pledging $1,000 a year for each of the next five years. One other guest, in addition to Martin himself, pledged $5,000 a year for five years.

That one referral—based strictly on one board member’s relationship with Martin—led to pledges totaling $65,000. And the ripple effect was just beginning. Martin sat on the board of a private foundation, ran a company, and had many other relationships with people he was excited to introduce to the school. Each of our board members was discovering the same thing: it was far more effective to invite their friends and colleagues to their private Point of Entry Event and then leave it to their guest to choose to become involved or not, than it was to ask them prematurely to write a check to the school.

Because they had each attended at least one Point of Entry Event themselves, board members knew their friends would be inspired and educated about the school in that hour, whether or not they ever chose to become involved. They also knew that after the Follow-Up Call, I would “bless and release” those guests who did not want to become involved, so there would be no awkwardness the next time they saw their friend. At that point, it would be the organization’s job to develop an ongoing relationship between the donor and the school, and ultimately for asking for money if that was appropriate.

The first year, we did that asking at the Ask Event. The people who came to the Ask Event were the same people who had already attended the Points of Entry and had specifically expressed interest in staying involved with the organization. They knew they were going to be asked for money. In fact, many wondered why no one had asked them sooner. The same friend who had initially invited them to the Point of Entry—their  Ambassador—became their Table Captain at the Ask Event.

Those relationships between board members, volunteers, staff, and their friends and colleagues had been used to build new relationships between potential donors and the organization itself. Now it would be up to the staff to develop and manage those relationships skillfully, over time, involving volunteers as appropriate, to cultivate each major donor and grow a strong major-gifts program.