Essentials for Advancing Nonprofit Advocacy: Board Leadership

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“Most nonprofits (58%) identify the executive director as having responsibility for government relations or public policy. And the executive director is perceived as having the most influence regarding decisions concerning government relations. Yet organizations where the executive director has responsibility for public policy are less involved in public policy than organizations that assign responsibility to others.

Organizations most involved in public policy—whether testifying before a legislative or administrative hearing, lobbying on behalf of or against a proposed bill or other policy pronouncement, encouraging members to write, call, fax or email policy-makers, or releasing research reports to the media, public, or policy-makers—have staff, a board committee or an outside lobbyist assigned the responsibility for public policy.”
—Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP) Report

Editors’ Note: This article is adapted from a recently published book entitled The Board Member’s Guide to Lobbying and Advocacy, by Marcia Avner.1 As other articles in this issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly emphasize, advocacy is a core activity for nonprofits that we ignore at our own risk. Our boards are a potentially powerful and greatly underused resource for advocacy.

The evidence and our instincts are clear: board involvement makes nonprofit advocacy more effective. So how do we tap this source of power more consistently and sustainably?

In the continuing discussion about what the work of nonprofit boards ought to be, there is a marked lack of attention to the board’s role in helping to maintain a reasonable public policy environment in which the nonprofit can do effective work. Board involvement in advocacy is one area that shapes the context for all other nonprofit activity. The majority of a board’s activity will likely be reactive to a situation predetermined by others. A strong advocacy program can aid in changing the basic rules and resources for nonprofits and their communities.

The potential is great and the opportunities seem obvious. So why aren’t more board members involved in advocacy and lobbying? Nonprofits need the leadership, wisdom, talents, and connections of board members in advocacy activities, but more often than not, it is still the staff and program participants who meet with legislators, political appointees, and the press.

In the current context, both in terms of public policy on substantive issues and in terms of our regulatory environments, we can’t afford to waste the advocacy potential of boards—but how to start? The short answer is that you must be intentional in your plan for board involvement. If your board does not have a history in advocacy, a full range of tools for building board involvement needs to be tapped to recruit, excite, train, involve, inform, and applaud board engagement. But first, examine what your board’s involvement can mean to your organization—envision the best-case scenario. Write out roles and responsibilities so that you have explored the possibilities and are prepared to tap this invaluable resource, and recruit current and future board members who add value to your advocacy efforts. Here is one board member’s story of turning the personal into the political.

Bill Sellars’ Story

Sellers is a board member of the Arc of King County, Board Member at Large of the Arc of Washington State.

“Having a daughter with Down syndrome let me into the field of public policy work. I became a board member of Arc of King County because I wanted to make sure that my community had the services and opportunities my daughter needed. And I felt I might as well lobby for all individuals with developmental disabilities at the same time I was advocating for her needs. Arc’s introduction of Citizen Lobbyists and Self-Advocates as vehicles of advocacy to legislative bodies has proven to be incredibly valuable.

“When the Citizen Lobbyists of the Arc successfully lobbied for funding that provides employment and training in the transition from high school to work (Education for All), my daughter benefited; she was taught in integrated settings and has been employed for 12 years as an office assistant in the corporate headquarters of a large natural food cooperative where she works 24 hours a week. Her income allows her to live rather independently in shared housing with four other young adults who have different developmental disabilities. The funding that we lobbied for also created a whole group of working taxpayers whose jobs and incomes pay for their housing, clothing, healthcare, transportation, continuing education, and leisure activities.

“The experiences I’ve had in public policy have proved to me over and over again that a handful of people can make a tremendous difference. After all, it was four mothers and one law student who brought Education for All (now called IDEA) to our nation.”

This story illustrates how board members can be key players—as organizational and community leaders—in shaping nonprofit policy work. They can be the sector’s strongest voices because of the fact that they are committed volunteers. In the case of boards who include constituents as members, they speak not only from personal experience but also from an organizational base that exhibits concern for the larger community of those affected by the issue at hand. Unfortunately, however, board leadership in nonprofit advocacy is still the exception rather than the rule.

How can we begin to build new board involvement while expanding the roles of board members already fully engaged in advocacy?

As with any campaign, those working to engage boards in advocacy need to consider key questions:

  • What is the opportunity?
  • What are our goals?
  • What are the problems and barriers?
  • Who makes the decisions and how can we influence them?

The Opportunity

Board members are obvious resources for a strong advocacy program for the following reasons:

  • Board members are community leaders by virtue of the fact that they serve on a nonprofit board representing community interests.
  • Board members may provide access to opinion shapers and decision-makers.
  • Their volunteer status and dedication to a nonprofit’s mission and goals, along with their commitment of time, resources, and service, make them an organization’s most credible spokespersons.
  • Board members are stewards and champions for the organization’s work, involved in its mission, goals, strategies, programs, and possibilities. Advocacy is part of that role.
  • As governors for the organization, board members are positioned to enrich strategic planning for policy work, set the direction for advocacy and lobbying efforts, and allocate resources for this component of nonprofit work. Without their leadership, public policy work might never be integrated into a nonprofit organization’s plans and options.
  • Board members use their networks to help build alliances and coalitions for nonprofit advocacy.
  • Board members can be powerful messengers in legislative and administrative arenas.

Bill Malloy’s Story

Malloy is a board member of the Center for Human Development.

“In December 2000, I joined the board of the Center for Human Development (CHD), an umbrella organization for over 72 human service providers in the Springfield, Massachusetts area.

“In spring 2001, board members of various human service organizations geared up to advocate for government funding to increase the salaries of low-paid human service workers. We wrote letters and e-mails and visited elected officials to request increased funding. Although unsuccessful, the board members continued to meet and set goals. In 2002, during the state’s budget crisis, we rallied to prevent funding cuts to programs. Our goal was to create a new emphasis on administrative reform. In fact, we have had so much success with this effort, we’ve brought the salary issue back into the forefront.
“I believe it has been extremely important that board members led these efforts, because in both cases it wasn’t our jobs on the line. We could speak from the point of view of a community leader to tell officials what effect these issues have on our organizations and the communities we serve.”

How Advocacy Boards Act

For nonprofits to fully integrate advocacy into their overall strategy for meeting their mission and to maximize clout, board members need to be engaged in meeting key governance and action roles.
In high-effectiveness mode, nonprofits will have boards of directors who:

  • are instrumental in making public policy a priority for their nonprofit organization;
  • decide issues and positions after fully consulting and engaging the constituency they represent;
  • have a clear discipline for ensuring those constituencies are consulted and for ensuring they are engaged in creating and vetting advocacy positions;
  • integrate strategic planning and advocacy conversations;
  • lead and serve on policy committees;
  • are key messengers to elected and appointed officials and their staff, as well as the media; and
  • value advocacy as a strategy and work with staff to build capacity for advocacy for the long term.
    On a broader scale, to maximize the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations we must have a voice at the key policy tables on the large and small issues that affect life in our communities and organizations. To ensure that this seat is reserved for us, we must have a whole-organization effort in nonprofits all across the sector—supported and peopled in part by active board members.

Barriers to Board Engagement in Advocacy

Why are so many board members reluctant to be a voice in the public policy dialogue? It seems safe to assume that anything that chills nonprofit advocacy overall influences the ways in which nonprofit board directors position themselves relative to advocacy and lobbying.

Findings reported by Jeff Berry and David Arons in A Voice for Nonprofits (Brookings Institution, 2003) show that governmental restrictions on lobbying not only create real limitations on a nonprofit’s ability to advocate for issues and constituencies, but also that these restrictions have been excessively effective because nonprofits don’t really understand them. Too many nonprofit staff and board leaders overreact to the 1976 Lobby Law limits by assuming that nonprofits are not allowed to lobby. Some fear that any public presence on an issue, any rocking the boat, will have a negative impact on their organization.

By contrast, it would be unlikely that the business sector would allow an opportunity to affect its own environment go untaken due to a lack of basic research on the real parameters of restrictions. More likely, they would find every way to push what they were allowed to do to the limit.

There are other inhibitors as well. A major study, the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), a survey of 1700 nonprofits carried out by OMB Watch, Tufts University, and Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, identified factors that motivate and factors that impede nonprofit involvement in policy issues. The chief barriers are stated to be:

  • limited financial resources,
  • limited staff and volunteer skills, and tax laws or IRS regulations.

In particular, organizations that received government funding revealed in the SNAP survey that they were particularly reluctant to participate in public policy, fearing retribution from their government funders. In addition, organizations that did not lobby reported that they perceived their reliance on foundation funding to be a barrier to advocacy.

Deciding the Board’s Role

Each nonprofit organization determines what role advocacy will play in its plans for meeting goals. By understanding what motivates and inspires boards, nonprofits can expand board roles and increase activism.
In 2004, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits worked with Professor Jodi Sandfort and a team of six students in the Master of Public Policy Program at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. They examined a fundamental question: what underlying forces drive board members of Minnesota nonprofit organizations to engage in advocacy efforts? Their findings are as follows:

  • There needs to be clear definition of roles in strategic planning for advocacy, in shaping the policy agenda, and in engaging in advocacy and lobbying.
  • A commitment to advocacy must be embraced by the entire organization.
  • The goal of the organization must be to create an advocacy culture, a so-called “politicized collective identity,” among the organization’s board and staff, as well as in the sector as whole.
  • A board member can be recruited, nurtured, or perhaps unleashed to serve as an advocacy catalyst leader, “the person who believes that advocacy is the right path for the organization to take strategically to accomplish its mission and is willing to push others to do so.”
  • Board members will be motivated, within a system of clearly defined roles and with the leadership of an advocacy catalyst leader, if the appeal is to personal values. Turning the personal into the political engages board leaders in advocacy.

In other words, board members often give of their time because they feel a values alignment with the organization and its work. They wish to be of use and to make a difference. The case needs to be made for nonprofit boards that an understanding of the organization’s environment and its advocacy opportunities actually provides boards with more information from which to make all planning decisions. It is part of good governance. A careful examination of the leveraging opportunities of successful public policy and advocacy work will motivate the board to integrate advocacy fully into its responsibilities.

Recommendations: Action Steps for Nonprofits

Board members and staff can begin now to accelerate engagement in public policy. It takes one person—board or staff—to start the discussion, build a collective awareness of the value of advocacy, and plan strategies for being an effective voice for issues that matter to your organization and the people you serve. Some steps to take:

  • Recruit board members with interest, experience, and political savvy.
  • Involve board members in policy planning and decision-making.
  • Create a policy committee that enables your most interested and talented advocates—board, staff, and allies—to drive strategy and planning for your organization’s work.
  • Create a Rapid Response Team, led by your key advocacy staff member and involving at least two engaged board members. This team makes decisions that have to be addressed in the high-pressure timelines that mark most national, state, and local legislative decisions.
  • Listen to board members to determine their interest, their concerns, and the ways they are most likely to add value to your advocacy initiatives; find your shared priorities.
  • Provide training on governance roles for advocacy, lobby law, and advocacy skills for board members. Tap local infrastructure organizations that have such training ready to go.
  • Just do it. Ask board members to take specific steps, provide some guidance to coordinate strategy and message, and let them make the case for your causes.

And keep telling the stories that inspire board members and remind them that this is an important way to make a difference.

Rebecca Lynn Petersen’s Story

Lynn is the board chair of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

“There are many ways a board member can get involved in grassroots advocacy. As a member of the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts board, I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time at the legislature, especially on our annual Arts Advocacy Days. I have testified before the Senate Finance Committee and have had the opportunity to sit in the house chambers and casually chat with representatives while they were taking breaks or having their lunch. I believe that none of these efforts would have been so effective if I was not on a first-name basis with my local legislators.

“There was one occasion when Minnesota Citizens for the Arts had a statewide advocacy campaign for an important arts issue. Things were really heating up on a Saturday. I knew that one of our legislators always made a point of being available at the local café on Saturday. We needed to know the position the House was taking on this issue. So, on a cold winter Saturday morning, I ran over to the café and had a very important and rewarding conversation with our local representative. Some of the best lobbying work can happen in your local café! It paves the way for equally important work at the state capitol.

“It’s important to remember that our senators and representatives are also our neighbors, our community members, and our representation in state government. They can help us get things done, and we can help them get things done.


1. Used with permission. Copyright 2004, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. See:
lobbying/ or call the Wilder Foundation directly at 800-274-6024.

Box: How Nonprofits Supporting Institutions Can Advance board Advocacy

Given the potential and importance of increasing board engagement and leadership in public policy initiatives, there are key steps that nonprofit infrastructure organizations, philanthropic entities, and academic and supporting institutions can take to increase engagement of nonprofit boards. High priority needs include the following:

Work toward reforms in the laws that govern nonprofit lobbying. The distinctions between grassroots and direct lobbying confuse nonprofits and unduly complicate record keeping. Numerous organizations are working on legislation pending in the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act to eliminate this arcane distinction, but the CARE Act seems stalled and the problem is likely to need ongoing attention.

Expand education on the lobby law and rules applying to federal and foundation grant recipients to broader audiences using multiple media. The Alliance for Justice, Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, OMB Watch, and other national groups have excellent materials and training modules on these issues that diffuse angst and uncertainty; these materials and trainings need to be offered more widely. Target audiences need to be expanded with aggressive outreach to board members and funders. Philanthropic investments in this work have been beneficial to hundreds of organizations, but more is needed. SNAP research reports that “. . . the general understanding nonprofits have of the federal advocacy and lobby laws may be described as thin.” Lawyers, accountants, and others who advise nonprofits need additional expertise in lobby law.
Promote board engagement through research and case stories that inform and encourage board action. Document achievement.

Incorporate advocacy and board roles into academic courses and practitioner training programs on governance, planning, and public policy.

Minimize the chilling effect of foundation grants on the boards and staff of nonprofits by ensuring that all foundation staff understand that advocacy and lobbying are allowable activities.

Write the least restrictive private and public grant contracts possible.

Recognize and applaud the work of board members who are public policy leaders for their organizations.