The fire service, especially the volunteer fire service, has always functioned as a closed-off/secluded organization. We are there to serve the community, but we don't really involve the community aside from donation requests, events, and parades. So, our departments need our communities to be successful, but we often shut them out of decision-making (insert "that's how we have always done it"). We have a solution to that!
Why do we as organizations try to take on so much? The daunting task of recruiting new members, retaining the members you have, staying up to date on training, responding to calls, apparatus maintenance, turnout gear inspections, SCBA maintenance, and so on. While we focus on all of those things, we leave in the rearview: finances, marketing, fundraising, policy review, public relations, business management, and much more.
Fun fact- your community is full of subject matter experts who probably don't want to run into a burning building or splint a broken leg, but they have the desire to help their local volunteer fire company.
While you can simply market to these individuals to join and take on administrative roles, we encourage you to take it one step further- the Community Board Member!
First comes the question as to whether your board of directors is even functioning the way they should be within your department. For the sake of this blog, let's assume the board and the department has a solid structure. We want you to expand upon that structure by implementing the position of community board member on your board of directors. Yes, we want you to put an outsider, a non-member without a fire service background, on your board of directors. As a matter of fact, you should have 2-3 of them on your board. Yes, they need to have voting rights. (We have probably lost you at this point, but let's keep going)
Why? These individuals become unbelievably crucial to your department's growth and long-term sustainability. They bring an outsider perspective that encompasses what the community thinks of you. They bring in their expertise as it relates to their career field. They now serve as ambassadors to your organization.
The right individuals have little to no fire service background. They will need an onboarding process to understand the terminology, roles and responsibility of the board and a general overview of the department. However, their lack of fire service or department knowledge helps guide unbiased decisions at the board level. They can make decisions that are best for the department and the community without ego and emotion getting in the way.
They serve as a voice of the community. Again they lack that internal knowledge, so they only know what they know as an "outsider." Don't worry; they will quickly become an insider(in a positive way), but they will never lose their perspective. It would be best if you always wanted to know what the community perceives you as. Sometimes it can be difficult to hear but is necessary for success.
Choose individuals based on their knowledge and expertise. What does your department need help with? Do you need a CPA, an attorney, a nonprofit executive director, a marketing specialist, an event planner, human resources specialist, an investment specialist, etc.? The list goes on. There are endless possibilities to increase the depth of your department, your board, and your leadership.
Most of you hate to admit it, but your volunteer fire company is a business- especially at the Board of Directors level. These positions are filled by people who have walked the difficult journey of running a business or working in corporate America. They understand the challenges.
These individuals now serve as ambassadors. They increase your department's network. Remember, we tend to close ourselves off from the community. Fast forward- the average citizen who knows community board member Bob can now talk to Bob about the fire company and get a better understanding of what is going on. Imagine the domino effect of positivity: new supporters, new donors, an additional recruitment pool, and more people who now understand your needs.
So you are afraid of airing your dirty laundry. Guess what? Every department has it- career and volunteer, big and small, rich and poor. Every business in this country, from small to fortune 500, has dirty laundry. Choose the right individual, and they will walk you through your next challenge. Why? Because they have already journeyed down this road. Difficult discipline situation? Financial issues? Public relations nightmare? They can help you solve them with a cool and calm approach.
Community board members are invaluable. It is up to you whether you want to open your doors to outsiders to be a better department.
Keep an eye out for a future blog where we interview a community board member who served a department for approximately three years.