Why Board Engagement in Advocacy Is Essential

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We ask a lot of nonprofit boards of directors. We want them to be deep thinkers about strategy and mission, vigilant providers of oversight, rainmaking fundraisers for our work…the list goes on.

But where some have called for a narrowing of the board’s scope, today BoardSource did the exact opposite. With the release of a new edition of Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, we have formalized the expectation that advocacy is an essential board responsibility.

This is not something that we take lightly. “Ten Basics” is widely considered to be the definitive resource on nonprofit board roles and responsibilities, and has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide since it was first released in 1988. Expanding the expectations for boards around advocacy in this seminal publication is putting a stake in the ground. We are saying that advocacy is too important to the success of our missions to be considered something “extra” or “nice to do.” It’s absolutely essential to the work of our organizations and our ability to fulfill our missions and serve our communities.

Here’s why we are taking this important stand:

  • Our missions are too important to sit on the sidelines. If there are policy changes that would advance—or threaten—our ability to do our work, we can’t afford to sit idle as the decision-making happens around us. We need to make sure that policymakers understand the impact of their decisions on our missions and our communities. We need to make sure that they know exactly what our communities have to gain—or lose—from those decisions; it’s our responsibility as protectors of our missions.
  • The need is too great to ignore. While it’s not all about public funding for nonprofit organizations, we cannot be naive about the fact that nonprofit organizations are extremely vulnerable to shifts in public funding priorities. With a third of all revenues received by public charities coming from government sources, there’s no denying that a huge portion of the programs and services that we provide to our communities depend on public support. And when that support shrinks, goes away, or is delayed, the people that we serve suffer. That’s not a fundraising problem for our organizations; that’s a survival problem for our communities’ most vulnerable. We have to make sure that policymakers understand the impact of their decisions before the damage is already done.
  • We are the people decision-makers need to hear from. Policymakers are hungry for information and education from community leaders and constituents, and board members’ motivations and intentions are perceived differently than those of paid lobbyists or even nonprofit staff. When an unpaid volunteer board leader takes that time to speak with them about an issue of community importance, they pay attention.
  • We have more power and influence than we think. There are an estimated 20 million board members in the United States alone, and we represent our communities’ most connected and influential leaders. When the stakes are high, these relationships and networks matter, and we have the power to partner with decision-makers to align priorities with what our communities really need.

Board leaders are a powerful and influential group of leaders committed to the missions and organizations we serve. To leverage the positive potential of our leadership, we have to expand it outside of the boardroom. We have to communicate with passion and clarity about why our work matters to those who are making decisions that will impact our missions.

If we care enough to sit on a board, then we must care enough to stand up for our missions. In some circumstances, it’s the only thing that will really make a difference.

The new edition of “Ten Basics” is a part of a broader effort to get boards engaged as ambassadors and advocates for their missions—an effort BoardSource formalized last year with the launch of the Stand for Your Mission campaign, together with the Alliance for Justice, the Campion Foundation, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the National Council of Nonprofits. Learn more about the Stand for Your Mission campaign and how your board can stand for your mission at www.standforyourmission.org.

  • Gayle

    I am completely on board with board advocacy. And then…
    For many board members, this is a totally new skill set. If we want board members to participate, then we need to build in training and coaching to enable them to be effective and to feel rewarded by participating in advocacy activities. As those of us who find ourselves frequently in the trenches on public policy advocacy know, there are lots of setback and roadblocks that can be discouraging to many people and leave them frustrated and bitter about their participation.
    Also, boards need to be savvy about the many rules about lobbying, from considering whether to elect the 501(h) safe harbor to what the definition, registration and reporting requirements are for lobbyists within their states or at the federal level, both on legislative lobbying and executive branch lobbying.
    So yes, we need to encourage board members to be engaged, but that doesn’t let us off the hook from making sure they have the tools, knowledge and skills to be effective and rewarded for taking up yet another task.